If you’re having a friendly chat with a mate at work or the pub, or going down a Twitter reply hole, it’s not that unusual that you find yourself stumbling into a debate about something you were taught in school or a compelling argument you read some time ago. You’re dead sure of your position, and it’s pretty difficult sometimes to honestly question what you’ve been taught.
In today’s post, I want to explore the pathology behind this response, as summed up by Feynman’s famous quote:
“The problem is not people being uneducated. The problem is that people are educated just enough to believe what they have been taught, but not educated enough to question what they have been taught“.
Cognitive Psychology and Education
Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes like thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making. This branch of psychology teaches us that our brains are wired with a host of biases that can make us prone to simply accepting information we’ve been taught without a second thought. Let’s take a look at some of the big ones:
Confirmation bias: We’re more likely to search for, remember, and believe information that confirms our existing beliefs. We’re all guilty of it – it’s just how our brains work – but it means we might not be questioning what we’ve been taught if it lines up with what we already think and the balance of information in volume and saliency is all aligned to supporting that original belief.
The availability heuristic: This bias refers to our tendency to judge the likelihood of events based on how easily examples come to mind. So, if we’ve been taught something and it’s fresh in our minds, we’re more likely to think it’s true, even if it’s not. It might mean that the last person you heard speak on a topic in a meeting, for example, is the one that most strongly influences your opinion.
Illusory truth effect: Last but not least, this sneaky bias is when we’re more likely to believe the information we’ve heard repeatedly, regardless of its accuracy. In other words, if we’ve been taught something multiple times, we’re more inclined to believe it without questioning. It’s not difficult to see how this bias combined with the confirmation bias above builds a compelling defence against novel and contradictory information.
So, what can we do about these biases? A clear solution is to develop our critical thinking skills – you know, that thing your teachers always told you was important but never really explained why? Critical thinking helps us evaluate information more objectively and question what we’ve been taught. Sadly, whilst this type of Socratic thinking has been promoted for decades in the British education system, it remains on the sidelines as something to be spotted hopefully alongside student’s skill in particular subjects. The natural consequence of ‘good teaching’ rather than being called out (at least in the state system) as a specific competency that can be evaluated.
Evolutionary Psychology and the Desire to Conform
Evolutionary psychology is the study of how our mental processes have evolved to adapt to our environment. One key aspect of our evolution as social animals is our tendency to conform to group norms – after all, fitting in with the tribe meant a better chance of survival.
However, this need to conform can also make us more likely to accept what we’ve been taught without question. As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” but sometimes, the Romans might be wrong! So, how can we strike a balance between our evolutionary need to conform and our ability to think critically?
One approach is to create a culture of open-mindedness and healthy debate, where it’s not only accepted but encouraged to question the status quo and challenge commonly held beliefs. By fostering an environment that values curiosity and inquiry, we can better balance our innate desire to conform with the need for critical thinking. It’s not about rejecting our evolutionary instincts, but rather about adapting them to our modern world, where diverse perspectives and rigorous questioning can lead to richer knowledge and understanding.
Social Psychology and the Influence of Authority
Finally, let’s dive into social psychology, which explores how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are influenced by the presence of others. It turns out that authority figures can have a massive impact on our belief formation, sometimes leading us to accept information without question (“I was just following orders!”). We’ve all bemoaned the colleague or client that only seems to listen to the loudest voice in the room.
Two classic experiments can shed some light on this phenomenon:
The Milgram experiment: This infamous study by Stanley Milgram revealed that a whopping 65% of participants were willing to administer what they believed were dangerous electric shocks to an innocent person, simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure. It’s a chilling reminder of the power of authority in shaping our actions.
The Asch conformity experiments: These studies by Solomon Asch demonstrated that people are more likely to conform to the majority opinion, even when it’s wrong, if they perceive that the majority is supported by an authority figure. In other words, if our teachers, a best-selling author, a TV personality or other authority figures tell us something is true, we’re more inclined to believe it without question.
So, what can we do to counter the influence of authority on our beliefs? One strategy is to cultivate a culture of healthy scepticism and encourage the questioning of authority figures when necessary. This doesn’t mean we should disrespect or disregard authority, but rather, that we should learn to evaluate information based on its merits rather than blindly accepting it due to the status of the person presenting it. It was a little baffling to me to see so much criticism being levelled at people through the pandemic who were politely questioning ‘the science’ and authority, as anyone sensible should have been doing, and how terms like ‘peer review’ were being held out as the ultimate defence to close down any debate.
So several factors can make us more likely to believe what we’ve been taught without question. From cognitive biases to our evolutionary need for conformity to the influence of authority figures, it’s clear that our minds are not always as objective and rational as we might like to believe, a story which sounds tediously familiar from human-centred bloggers like me. But it’s certainly not as simple as to take the line that it’s a failure of education, more that it’s a failure of a sufficient focus in education to strengthen the skills to push back against very powerful cognitive and social biases.
The good news of course is that we can take steps to counter these influences by promoting critical thinking, fostering a culture of open-mindedness and healthy debate, and nurturing a healthy scepticism of authority. By doing so, we can better navigate the challenge that will lead to a more enlightened and well-informed society.
This post was cross-posted and shared on LinkedIn 3rd April 2023