The False Help of Equality: Being Nice Can Limit Truth
There is a seemingly benevolent desire to give people the benefit of the doubt. This desire increases in direct proportion to how uncertain one’s own position is felt to be. We seem to take the scientific empirical principle that all knowledge is tentative and use that to support the false conclusion that therefore all opinions are equally tentative. The equality is enticing, we’re a magnanimous species when it serves the greater value of getting along.
So then, on one hand we like equality and want to be nice, publicly supporting the notion that all opinions are equal in potential validity. However, on the other hand we continue to operate under the premise that we ourselves individually are usually correct. The situation allows for a double-barreled blast to progress in understanding, a self-reinforcing system of diminished judgment. The former public support allows people to dismiss the advice of those who may be better informed or offer better arguments in order to buttress the latter ego-centric notion that we’re likely correct anyway.
These findings were recently reported in the Washington Post by Chris Mooney, looking at a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The experimenters noted certain criticisms of cognitive bias research, that they were largely based on western cultures, and set out to cross-check by using populations in Denmark, China and Iran. Groups were set up in two-person dyads and basic observation tasks were given, with each person being observed as to their accuracy, asked about the confidence they have for their decisions. Later, after many trials, when faced with a new task example, each was asked as to whether they would continue with their own judgment or go with that of their partner.
Mooney notes from the study that:
…people have an “equality bias” when it comes to competence or expertise, such that even when it’s very clear that one person in a group is more skilled, expert, or competent (and the other less), they are nonetheless inclined to seek out a middle ground in determining how correct different viewpoints are.
This “equality bias” was consistent regardless of whether or not a dyad was set up with a running tally that each could view noting how much better one person was at the task. When it came time to answer whether or not they’d continue with their own answer or that of their partner, those who had been less correct under-estimated the other person and those who had been more correct over-estimated the other person. Even when offered a monetary reward based on giving the correct answer for the next trial, this did not change the behavior of the groups.
The authors of the study stated it this way:
Remarkably, dyad members exhibited this “equality bias”— behaving as if they were as good as or as bad as their partner—even when they (i) received a running score of their own and their
partner’s performance, (ii) differed dramatically in terms of their individual performance, and (iii) had a monetary incentive to assign the appropriate weight to their partner’s opinion.
Further, and even more troubling, was that those who were consistently less sensitive to the variations in the trials reported higher levels of confidence in their answers, regardless of their historical lack of accuracy. In other words, those who are less accurate tend to have a greater confidence regardless of whether they’ve been informed of that fact. This greater confidence, despite no actual reality to base such a belief on, contributes to decision-making later by the group, as people tend to follow those who exhibit greater levels of confidence. The “fake it till you make it” advice is one example. From years of experience in security work, I can personally attest to situations where a projection of confidence, despite objectively being overwhelmed by superior numbers, resulted in reduced situations of conflict.
Let’s clarify to clear up potential confusion. 1) At the group level we support the notion of equality in the validity of opinion, whereas 2) at the individual level we tend to support the ego-centric notion that we’re more correct than others, resulting in 3) a group dynamic of when faced with displays of confidence, regardless of any objective facts noting someone as being more or less accurate in their judgment, we tend to go along with the middle ground, leaning towards the greater display of confidence.
The authors conclude:
Social exclusion invokes strong aversive emotions that—some have even argued—may resemble
actual physical pain. By confirming themselves more often than they should have, the inferior member of each dyad may have tried to stay relevant and socially included. Conversely, the better performing member may have been trying to avoid ignoring their partner.
Essentially we don’t like participating in actions that contribute to anyone’s suffering, particularly our own. This may not make much sense in a world of internet trolls and multimedia bullying, but notice that those actions are not about group decision-making. Instead, they deal with an “Us vs Them” mentality, where concern is for the establishment or realignment of a power dynamic.
Mooney, again taking from the study, notes:
…it also shows how our evolution in social groups binds us powerfully together and enforces collective norms, but can go haywire when it comes to recognizing and accepting inconvenient truths.
Inconvenient truths are any such that make us uncomfortable, that go against the assumed, conscious or otherwise, foundations of a world-view. This is why how one seeks to interact with the world is so profoundly important. If knowledge is not based on special delivery from an authority, if all people are potentially capable of, through generative dialogue and skeptical inquiry, increase their understanding of any aspect of experience, then there is no reason to hold unnecessarily to our opinions. Unfortunately we often don’t see the world that way, instead seeking through authority, real or imaginative, to support the ego-centric mischaracterizations of our competence.
Regardless of which world-view we follow, the tendency to project a false degree of equality in group decision-making is unhelpful at the minimum, and potentially dangerous at the extreme. By allowing opinions that are demonstrably unequal to hold equal weight in decisions, as a society we stumble even faster down the path of negative returns for our actions. This doesn’t mean being deliberately mean, but it most certainly means recognizing that truth and reality are not concerned with a desire to be nice.
© David Teachout
Research article in PNAS (purchase required to be viewed):
Equality Bias impairs collective decision-making across cultures