First We Believe, Then We Evaluate

When presen­ted with a piece of inform­a­tion for the first time, do we first under­stand the mes­sage before care­fully eval­u­at­ing its truth­ful­ness and decid­ing wheth­er to believe it, or do we instead imme­di­ately and auto­mat­ic­ally believe everything we read?

In an art­icle that traces the his­tory of this ques­tion (Descartes argued that “under­stand­ing and believ­ing are two sep­ar­ate pro­cesses” while Spinoza thought that “the very act of under­stand­ing inform­a­tion was believ­ing it”), an ingeni­ous exper­i­ment con­duc­ted almost twenty years ago by Daniel Gil­bert, author of Stum­bling on Hap­pi­ness, describes how Spinoza was cor­rect: when we first encounter inform­a­tion we believe it imme­di­ately and without thought, only to fully eval­u­ate its truth­ful­ness moments later provided we are not dis­trac­ted.

Obvi­ously it is import­ant to be aware of this beha­viour, as to be dis­trac­ted while read­ing crit­ic­al inform­a­tion of ques­tion­able vera­city could cause us to not eval­u­ate it fully or at all. How­ever this beha­viour has fur­ther implic­a­tions, accord­ing to the art­icle, sug­gest­ing that this may “explain oth­er beha­viours that people reg­u­larly dis­play”, includ­ing:

  • Cor­res­pond­ence bias: this is people’s assump­tion that oth­ers’ beha­viour reflects their per­son­al­ity, when really it reflects the situ­ation.
  • Truth­ful­ness bias: people tend to assume that oth­ers are telling the truth, even when they are lying.
  • The per­sua­sion effect: when people are dis­trac­ted it increases the per­suas­ive­ness of a mes­sage.
  • Deni­al-innu­endo effect: people tend to pos­it­ively believe in things that are being cat­egor­ic­ally denied.
  • Hypo­thes­is test­ing bias: when test­ing a the­ory, instead of try­ing to prove it wrong people tend to look for inform­a­tion that con­firms it.

2 thoughts on “First We Believe, Then We Evaluate

  1. Adam Isom

    I’m so glad that a blog like this exists. I under­stand you’re doing it for your own bene­fit, but I’m sure I’ll bene­fit too (I found it recently through Ryan Hol­i­day.)

    This is what makes my vis­it so worth­while: “when we first encounter infor ma tion we believe it imme di­ately and with out thought, only to fully eval u ate its truth ful ness moments later pro vided we are not dis­trac­ted” Per­haps this is what sep­ar­ates crit­ic­al thinkers from typ­ic­al read­ers: tak­ing the pause.

  2. Lloyd Morgan Post author

    Thanks, Adam. Kind words like this are always appre­ci­ated.

    That’s an inter­est­ing though; that if this can become a habit, we may even be able to train ourselves for crit­ic­al think­ing.

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