One of the mechanisms the human mind uses to manage the complexity of life is to construct cohesive stories that explain the information it encounters. Until such a story has been constructed, the mind experiences a degree of tension or dissonance that is uncomfortable. The tendency of the human mind is to resolve this cognitive tension as rapidly as possible and at any cost, even if the story that is constructed to that end might not reflect reality. The mind is less concerned about the possibility that its view of the world might not be accurate than it is with relieving the tension of information that does not fit with its view.
To put it another way, the motivation of the mind toward preserving the cohesiveness of the story it believes and then placing great confidence in it tends to be stronger than the desire to know the truth at any cost. Daniel Kahneman in his excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow calls this “What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI)” and describes it like this:
As the WYSIATI rule implies, neither the quantity nor the quality of the evidence counts for much in subjective confidence. The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little. (Kahneman, 2013, p. 87)
This motivation to avoid cognitive dissonance predisposes the human mind to make hasty, emotionally-driven, “knee-jerk” assumptions about new information in order to facilitate its fit into the existing story. When presented with new information, the mind is quick to assume that the story it uses to simplify life’s complexity is accurate and the information is suspect. The mind will attempt to fit the new information into the existing story (trimming or ignoring the parts that don’t) rather than questioning if the story itself needs to be revised or discarded. This desire to avoid cognitive dissonance is so strong that it can predispose people to not want to learn new information:
It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern. WYSIATI facilitates the achievement of coherence and of the cognitive ease that causes us to accept a statement as true. It explains why we can think fast, and how we are able to make sense of partial information in a complex world. (Kahneman, 2013, p. 87)
The mind is so strongly predisposed to protect its beliefs and preserve its story that in addition to its natural tendency of coasting along in passive ignorance, it may actively attempt to suppress information that does not fit:
We are confident when the story we tell ourselves comes easily to mind, with no contradiction and no competing scenario. But ease and coherence do not guarantee that a belief held with confidence is true. The associative machine is set to suppress doubt and to evoke ideas and information that are compatible with the currently dominant story. A mind that follows WYSIATI will achieve high confidence much too easily by ignoring what it does not know. It is therefore not surprising that many of us are prone to have high confidence in unfounded intuitions. (Kahneman, 2013, p. 239)
So what is the solution? Part of the solution may lie in recognizing that we only ever have incomplete information and that the gaps in our constructed story are therefore filled with assumptions that may or may not be true. With the realization that the story itself is incomplete and in need of refinement, it may be helpful to seek out new information (especially when it conflicts with the story) and interact with others (especially those who hold contrarian views) in order to test the validity and improve the accuracy of the story. Dealing with the ensuing cognitive tension is a small price to pay for overcoming our own ignorance.
You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. (Kahneman, 2013, p. 201)
Read more about WYSIATI:
- Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.