Rationality trick: noticing what you want to be true

Any time you make a judgement about something, whether it is during private reflection, or as part of some argument or debate, it is useful to stop and think: Do I have any preference as to what I would like to be true? and What is that preference? At first it sounds like a silly think to ask yourself; what’s true is true regardless of what you would like. Which brings me to the following distinction:

  • what is true
  • what I think is true
  • what I’m arguing to be true
  • what I want to be true

Consider a simple question

What is the population of Switzerland?

In this example, what’s true is a straightforward fact you can easily find out. But that’s not the reason I used this example. What I’m remarking here is that you don’t really have a preference about what the truth is. When doing introspection with what do I want to be true, nothing results, you don’t care either way. Let’s contrast this with another example, assume for the sake of argument that you have personal convictions in the realm of politics, consider

Is the minimum wage beneficial or detrimental?

If you have some political affiliation and if you’re honest with yourself I’m pretty sure you will have an answer as to what you want to be true. And even if it’s not the case for this particular example, you can probably find a matter of policy for which a positive answer results from the introspection.

The important thing is to note the clear difference between the two examples. In the first example, there was no fact of the matter as to what you want to be true, in the second there is. And despite the fact that wanting something to be true has no bearing as to whether in fact it is true, it absolutely does have a bearing on

  • what I think is true
  • what I argue to be true

If you have a preference as to how you’d like things to be, you can be pretty sure that your mind will distort things to match that. It’s those pesky cognitive biases again, and as we’ve mentioned before, the biggest offender and most relevant here is confirmation bias.

Say, for example, you have a strong opinion about an issue, strong to the point that you consider that position to be part of your identity. In this scenario facts and arguments about the issue that are contrary to your position become an attack on who you are, they compromise your identity. And psychologically speaking, this is a big deal. Your ego will defend itself, and that includes distorting things and deceiving you and anybody else if necessary. This simple description does a good job of explaining some of the irrationality in politics.

So in summary, a preference for a state of reality activates biases that distort cognition to match.

This brings us back to the beginning of the post, here’s where the rationality trick comes in handy. When reflecting about some matter, it is a good exercise to ask yourself if you have a preference as to what you would like to be true. Noticing that you have such a preference should be a warning sign and a cue to exercise more discipline and restraint, because you know there is probably a bias at work.

Lastly, I want to point out the relationship between

  • what I’m arguing to be true
  • what I want to be true

To make matters worse, arguing something to be true may well determine what you want to be true. It’s all about signaling. As soon as you establish, in a social context, that you are advocating or defending a certain position, you become bound to it: being proven wrong as well as changing your opinion signals weakness, something we are evolutionarily programmed to avoid at all costs. That’s why you rarely see someone admitting being wrong or changing their mind in a debate, especially if there’s an audience.

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