• Jason Griffing

Curiosity: An Antidote to Bias

As we near the one-year anniversary of COVID19 landing on the shores of US, we seem as divided as ever about the path forward. This is not altogether unexpected. The myriad issues surrounding this outbreak are complex indeed. But there is another facet to this unfolding drama that is surprising, unsettling even: not even a global pandemic—universal as it is—has not united us politically.

In fact, in many respects, the opposite appears to be the case. Even questions that seem clear cut, such as whether or not to wear a face mask in public, have morphed into divisive political rallying points. One would think that even if we can’t agree on such a simple proposal, we should at least be capable of civil discourse about it. Alas, not so. Instead, leaders on both sides have dug in, befuddling the rest of us with their lack of solidarity in the face of such an indiscriminate enemy.

Explanations are hard to come by, to say nothing of solutions. However, a research paper titled “Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing” published in the 2017 edition of Advances in Political Psychology, holds one potential answer. Led by Professor Dan Kahan, of Yale University, the paper provides some surprising insights about how humans deal with divisive issues, and how curiosity may be the antidote we so desperately need.

Intelligence and Bias

Kahan and his team looked at how subjects appraised the seriousness of politically divisive issues. They compared the results to measurements they took of the subjects’ intelligence and curiosity levels. Their findings paint an interesting and rather counterintuitive picture.

As subjects increased in intelligence, so did the level of polarization between liberals and conservatives. Take the example of global warming. Left-leaning individuals higher in intelligence voiced increasing levels of concern while right-leaning individuals voiced increased skepticism. The higher the intelligence, the wider the gap.

This polarization stood in contrast to the effect of what the researchers called "science curiosity”. Unlike intelligence, increasing levels of curiosity moved the level of concern expressed by both liberals and conservatives in the same direction. Science curiosity did not eliminate differences in opinion—liberals still tended to be more concerned while conservatives tended to be more skeptical. However, while curiosity didn’t necessarily lead people to agree, it at least didn’t appear to drive a wedge between them the way that increasing levels of intelligence did.

Based on these findings, Kahan and his team argued that higher levels of intelligence make us more susceptible to bias. It is tempting to attribute biased information processing to a lack of mental capacity; we assume that higher reasoning powers are the key to clear, unbiased thinking. But this conclusion is inconsistent with the evidence the study uncovered. In their research, higher levels of scientific intelligence actually lead to increased levels of bias, not less. The paper postulates that people use their higher levels of reasoning to extract information that supports their beliefs while rationalizing away the rest.

We Prioritize Group Identity Over Accuracy

Kahan and his team argue that biased information processing results from our evolutionary need for belonging; we are incentivized to form opinions that align with the tribe, whether or not they are accurate. Consider our desire to seek out the most accurate information on complex issues like climate change. At best, our stance on this issue can have a limited effect on the societal behaviors and policies that give rise to the risks. Conversely, our beliefs on such a divisive topic have a direct impact on our stature within "the tribe".

When presented with a conflict between forming beliefs that affirm our group identity or forming beliefs that are consistent with the best available evidence, we often choose the former at the expense of the latter. According to Kahan and his team, the more intelligent we get, the better we are at finding affirming evidence and explaining away the rest. This, they argue, is the most plausible explanation for the widening of the gap the study observed as intelligence levels increased.

The Power of Questions

Curiosity counteracts the polarizing effect of politically motivated reasoning, but it is not totally clear why. One explanation offered by the study is that curious individuals simply find higher levels of joy in the “aha moment” of discovery:

…individuals who are higher in science curiosity, in order to satisfy their appetite to experience wonder and surprise, expose themselves more readily to information that is contrary to their political predispositions…

If we are to believe the findings of this research, then it appears that cultivating greater levels of curiosity at a societal level could be the answer to the ever-growing levels of polarization we seem to be experiencing. Sadly, Kahan and his team were not optimistic.

This is easier said than done, however. Indeed, much, much easier. As difficult as the project to measure science curiosity has historically proven itself to be, the project to identify effective teaching techniques for inculcating it and other dispositions integral to science comprehension has proven many times as complicated.

Public policy directives are beyond the intended scope of this post. However, at the individual and small group levels—at work, for example—there is one common-sense measure we can take to promote higher levels of curiosity—promote good questions. We have a natural tendency to reward answers. But in our quest for solutions, we tend to take the inquiry that led to those answers as a given. This is a mistake. Without good questions, there are no good answers.

Questions help us:

  • Bring structure and clarity to our most vexing problems

  • Identify blind spots in our understanding;

  • Better understand the needs of others;

  • Promote empathy and understanding of diverse opinions and perspectives.

Reward curiosity. Make it a practice to think in terms of questions. Recognize team members specifically for being inquisitive, not just for providing solutions. When someone presents a good idea or solution to a complex challenge, see if you can reverse engineer the process that led them to that conclusion. Can you isolate the specific question that started them down the path? How exactly was this question arrived at? What steps in that process can be replicated on the next big challenge you are facing?

Taking such steps brings consciousness to a process that often happens below the surface. Asking questions too often goes unrecognized and unrewarded. This is the first step to creating a culture that fosters curiosity.

Issues as complex as COVID19 do not come along often. But they highlight a fractal pattern that plays out on issues of all sizes—we become less receptive to contradictory information about a topic the more we study it. This problem doesn’t apply strictly to political issues. The proposal you’ve been championing at work, the company acquisition you are planning, and your ideas about how to design that new software feature are all subject to this biased form of thinking.

Kahan’s research highlights curiosity as one possible antidote to this pernicious problem. Left to its own devices, our raw intelligence can lead to tunnel vision. Driven by a subconscious desire for tribal belonging, we cherry-pick the evidence. Curiosity, on the other hand, leads us to seek new information, even and especially when it doesn’t align with our current beliefs. While the jury is still out on ways that curiosity can be promoted at a societal level, we can hold ourselves and those around us to a higher standard through the simple practice of promoting good questions.

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