Saturday, May 17, 2008

Heads I win, tails you lose

Lurking dangers

After a few years of conscientious blogging about chess only I hope you don't mind some off topic rant.

I have been thinking a lot about the phenomenon confirmation bias lately. It is very worthwhile to read the article of Wiki aboout this. If you want something to be true, you ignore reality and you only see what confirms your ideas. There is a sort of buffering what excludes non confirming ideas from entering alltogether.

The effect is also known as belief bias, belief preservation, belief overkill, hypothesis locking, polarization effect, positive bias, the Tolstoy syndrome, selective thinking, myside bias, Plate pick-up and Morton's demon.

Alternately, Murphy's Law of Research dictates that "Enough research will tend to support your theory."

A few years ago Margriet and I stayed at a chess camping in France. There was a guy from Belgium. In Belgium they have a language border. Everybody who is not from Belgium cannot imagine what that is. This guy was from the French speaking side. The enemy speaks Dutch. Since he knew we were from the Netherlands, he spoke Dutch to us. We had a good contact with him and we played a lot of games. After two weeks we decided to ask him about the language border, since inquiring minds need to know. All of a sudden he started to speak French and he pretended that he couldn't understand Dutch. Margriet and I were quite perplexed. No matter what we said, he refused to talk Dutch anymore.

Confirmation bias seems to be based on emotions. Those emotions prevent logical thinking. There are quite a few problems with this:
  • The truth is denied
  • Any attempt from outside to adress logical reason is placed in the camp of the enemy
  • Logic reason is replaced by emotions.
  • Emotions are more powerfull than logical thoughts.
  • Emotions are much faster than logical thoughts.
  • It is contageous.
  • It is incomprehendsible for outsiders
Confirmation bias seems to be very common. So common that we tend to deny that it effects us. Which in itself is an example of confirmation bias.

The Belgium language war suffices all criteria above.
To me it seems that confirmation bias is the root of all wars, quarrels and misunderstandings. I'm very surprised there is so little scientific interest for such life influencing problem.

Everywhere where you see something incomprehendsible in social or political relations you can be sure that confirmation bias is the root. Take the following examples:

  • The lauguage barrier in Belgium.
  • The Chinese ambassador in our country once said: I would rather give up an arm than to lose Taiwan.
  • Denial of the Armenian genocide by Turkey.
  • Claiming of Cyprus by both Greece and Turkye.
  • Claiming of the Kuril Islands by both Russia and Japan.
  • The claiming of Tibet by China.
  • The problems of muslims with pictures of the Prophet.
These problems have in common that they are quite incomprehendsible for outsiders and there are a lot of emotions involved.

I have taken great pains to find out what the confirmation bias was of the Germans in WWII. To that end I read mein Kampf from Hitler. The main idea was that the Germans were something special. Übermenschen. To us, who live next door to them, such idea would only give rise to risibility. If we think about Übermenschen, the Germans wouldn't be in the top ten at all. But no matter how illogical and ridicule the ideas are, they proved to be very contageous.

The problem is that outsiders tend to take such ideas not serious, since they are so illogical and they can't imagine anything by the triggered emotions. But taking the ideas not serious can be quite dangerous, as history has proved. Confirmation bias is a highly contageous illness that can even influence those who try to prevent contamination. Before 9-11 I had no opinion at all about Muslims, what's more, I didn't wanted to have one. Due to Bin Laden I now have an opinion about them. Which was his goal. Confirmation bias causes polarization into two opposite camps. The ideas in both camps are necessarily biassed.

On smaller scale the same happens. Take for instance the confirmation bias of people towards Elizabeth Vicary. People drawing conclusions based on non existing facts.

That makes this post slightly chess related. Boards of chess clubs and chess federations tend to bicker every few years. It usually starts the same way: somebody does something for a reason that is incomprehendsible to others. In stead of asking "why do you do that?" they fill in the motivations of that person by themselves. Usually an evil motivation is presumed. On their turn they start to behave strange against that person, who suddenly founds himself accused of evil intentions. When he starts to defend himself a quarrel is born and emotions take over. It is the same everywhere. Take the FIDE, the USCF, the KNSB (dutch federation) etc. or maybe your own chessclub. Even the chess improvement scene is ruled by biassed cults:)


  1. lovely. thank you. your brain cell count is secure...

    loved this belgium language war stuff. i have experienced similar to this in areas distinct from language, so deeply appreciate how well you describe this. warmest, dk

  2. I think you have confirmation bias in seeing confirmation bias as the root of every conflict. :)

  3. Tempo: that language thing sounds very strange, I really don't even understand it at all. He spoke Dutch until you asked him about it? How odd?

    LOL wormwood.

  4. WW,
    I see it proven everywhere, so it must be true.

  5. Blue,
    the french talking people of Belgium usually are able to speak dutch too. Against dutch speaking Belgians they speak french though. But against dutchmen they speak dutch.

    We apparently offended him with our question. Of course we cannot imagine why. This kind of behaviour is widespread. You can't imagine how deep rooted this language barrier is as outsider.

  6. hi Temposchlucker

    I have been following your blog (irregularly) for quite some time now and like it more and more. One remark though on your recent article and the section on the Germans during the time of the III. Reich. You mention the concept of the Übermensch and link it primarily (and incorrectly) to Hitler. I take it for granted that Hitler's mind was not really capable of rational thought and certainly too primitive to handle a philosophical concept such as the "Übermensch". Originally, this concept was "invented" by Nietzsche and when the Nazis instrumentalised Nietzsche's work they distorted his idea completely. And then, by saying that the Germans don't belong into the top ten of "Übermenschen" you actually seem to suggest that such a top ten really exists. Of course, you dispel this thought in your very next sentence but nonetheless, the wording didn't seem right.
    Apart from this, great blog!!!

  7. Hi PS,
    You mention the concept of the Übermensch and link it primarily (and incorrectly) to Hitler.

    I didn't know the origin of the concept. I used it to demonstrate that Hitler thought that the Germans were something special. Maybe he didn't even used the word Übermensch for it and did I made it up to be able to push the joke about the Germans not being in the top ten. The idea that Germans are something special proved to be quite contageous. In fact even Bobby Fischer made it to the center of his mental aberration.

    I was especially interested where the hatred against the Jews came from. When Hitler arrived in Vienna when he was young, he hadn't an opinion about the Jews at all. In mein Kampf he describes how he found out that the Jews were the cause of the fact that the Germans remained unaware of their superiority. He blamed the communists and the newspapers for keeping the Germans asleep.

    The communists happened to have hijacked the ideas of Karl Marx, who was Jewish. The newspapers in Vienna happened to be in the hands of Jews. And so he invented the idea of the Jewish conspiracy against the Germans. Which is too silly for words of course.

    The fact that I take the trouble to write all this down is because of the fear and frustration that this might happen again. According to Bin Laden the Muslims are something special. He sees a conspiracy to keep the Muslims asleep. He even sees crusaders everywhere, which is too silly for words.

    The frustration lies in the fact that we haven't learned anything from the past. The danger to wave away what is incomprehendsible.