I noticed a Scientific American piece, The Certainty Bias: A Potentially Dangerous Mental Flaw, and read it with interest. The article is subtitled “A neurologist explains why you shouldn’t believe in political candidates that sound too sure of themselves,” and takes the form of an interview of Robert Burton, the former chief of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco-Mt. Zion hospital, by Jonah Lehrer, the editor of Mind Matters. Burton has written a book with the intriguing title, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, which explores the neuroscience behind the feeling of certainty, or why we are so convinced we’re right even when we’re not. This was the subject matter of the interview. I quote an excerpt:
LEHRER: In your book, you compare the “feeling of certainty” that accompanies things such as religious fundamentalism to the feeling that occurs when we have a word on the-tip-of-our-tongue. Could you explain?
BURTON: There are two separate aspects of a thought, namely the actual thought, and an independent involuntary assessment of the accuracy of that thought. … This isn’t a feeling that we can easily overcome through logic and reason; it simply happens to us.
This sensation is a manifestation of a separate category of mental activity–unconscious calculations as to the accuracy of any given thought. On the positive side, such feelings can vary from a modest sense of being right, such as understanding that Christmas falls on December 25, to a profound a-ha, “Eureka” or sense of a spiritual epiphany. William James referred to the latter–the mystical experience–as “felt knowledge,” a mental sensation that isn’t a thought, but feels like a thought.
Once we realize that the brain has very powerful inbuilt involuntary mechanisms for assessing unconscious cognitive activity, it is easy to see how it can send into consciousness a message that we know something that we can’t presently recall–the modest tip-of-the-tongue feeling. At the other end of the spectrum would be the profound “feeling of knowing” that accompanies unconsciously held beliefs–a major component of the unshakeable attachment to fundamentalist beliefs–both religious and otherwise–such as belief in UFOs or false memories.
LEHRER: Why do you think that the feeling of certainty feels so good?
BURTON: Stick brain electrodes in rat pleasure centers (the mesolimbic dopamine system primarily located in the upper brain stem). The rats continuously press the bar, to the exclusion of food and water, until they drop. In humans the same areas are activated with cocaine, amphetamines, alcohol, nicotine and gambling—to mention just a few behaviors to which one can become easily addicted.
It is quite likely that the same reward system provides the positive feedback necessary for us to learn and to continue wanting to learn. The pleasure of a thought is what propels us forward; imagine trying to write a novel or engage in a long-term scientific experiment without getting such rewards. Fortunately, the brain has provided us with a wide variety of subjective feelings of reward ranging from hunches, gut feelings, intuitions, suspicions that we are on the right track to a profound sense of certainty and utter conviction. And yes, these feelings are qualitatively as powerful as those involved in sex and gambling. One need only look at the self-satisfied smugness of a “know it all” to suspect that the feeling of certainty can approach the power of addiction.
The thought that struck me with this subject matter (not that I was certain about it!) was an association with fundamentalism, legalism, or any form of Christianity which espouses absolute certainty about every tenet of its doctrine. Now, to be clear, I’m rather certain about the basic fundamentals of my own faith… (as should we all be), but what I’m thinking of here is the certainty over even the small things, the “negotiables,” and the matters which for the most part, have sufficient leeway so as not to be certain. Basically, religious closed-mindedness.
It’s the things we think we know that can cause blind spots, that keep us from being open-minded — make it so hard to be objective in considering alternate ideas or interpretations. If the feeling of certainty is like a drug, an addiction… then it’s something to be aware of, to exercise caution. For most of us though, it’s these areas where we tend to be so assertive, to be dogmatic, arrogant. I like the saying that we may be only 70% right, but the problem is we don’t know which 30% we’re wrong about. It stands to reason therefore that we ought always to show humility and openness in our dialogue, and resist the temptation to yield to the addiction of taking pleasure in our “feeling right.”