Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Minimalist Bias

For the moment, though, I lack the time and the inclination (well, to be honest, mostly the inclination. You can always find time) to see that the concept gets adequate consideration; I have decided to just post an outline of the idea and worry about fleshing it out later.

It is logically necessary that for any given question there must be an answer that makes fewer claims than any other possible answer. Claims in this case refers to assumptions required to advance the answer and implications that arise as a result of an answer. Whatever answer or (in the event of an absolute tie) answers fulfills this requirement I call “Minimalist Positions.”

I put forward for consideration the idea that where there is diversity of opinion in a critical environment, people will naturally tend toward either a Minimalist Position or, when a Minimalist Position is unpopular, whichever popular opinion is the most minimalist. This is not to say that all people will adopt Minimalist Positions, but to say that there is a nonrational bias in nearly all human beings that will cause a Minimalist Position to appear attractive regardless of the available evidence so long as the evidence does not definitively disprove the Minimalist Position. I say that the reason for this bias is that by making the fewest possible claims a Minimalist Position has the fewest possible points of attack which means that anyone holding a Minimalist Position will save themselves mental energy by minimalizing the number of objections they must wrestle with and consider.

Let it be noted that, for my part, this is just an armchair exercise in reasoning for me. Based on what I know of human nature, I know that there exists something we might call “mental fatigue,” I know that in general people would prefer to avoid being in a mentally fatigued state, and I know that holding a Minimalist Position will reduce the number of probable events that lead to a decline in mental energy. From these three ideas, I assert that there must exist a bias in human beings that causes a Minimalist Position to seem attractive for a nonrational reason, namely the reason of preventing mental fatigue.

However, this does not have to remain an armchair exercise. Psychological, Sociological, and Anthropoological studies should be possible that would confirm or deny the existence of such a bias and that would give data on the extent to which such a bias actually influences our decision making. A psychologist could gather a group of people together, assign them different beliefs – one of which would be a Minimalist Position – and allow the people to change positions after a period of debate during which the subjects would experience mental fatigue while wrestling with the implications and assumptions of their assigned beliefs. No doubt there would be flaws with this (like, how do you get someone to handle an assigned belief with the same passion and concern that people give their real beliefs), I'm not a psychologist, this is just an idea of how such a test could be conducted. Sociologist could study divisive issues throughout history and see if there does indeed tend to be any human “inclination” towards more minimalist beliefs per the available social data. Anthropologists, likewise, could study historical debates and social questions and see whether or not we tended to adopt smaller beliefs.

Of course, even if all of these disciplines produced results that supported the idea of such a bias, it could be objected that people tend toward more minimalist beliefs not due to a bias, but because minimalist beliefs tend to be more useful. This is basically the idea behind Occam's Razor. Perhaps Neuroscience could be helpful here if there were some way to quantify mental energy and if we somehow measured people in the course of them changing their beliefs on some issue. Then that would just be an example of an area where our biases actually help us come to accurate conclusions.

If it is indeed found to be true that we favor “smaller” answers to the big questions simply because they are easier to defend in a controversy (not because they gain the most ground – that is – because they say the most about the world, but because they say the least about the world and therefore only have to justify their perspective in a few areas), then we will have gained an insight that will help us understand religious, political, and cultural trends throughout history. Of course, this assumes that our religious, political, and cultural trends do generally move from making many claims to making fewer claims; perhaps the opposite is true, if the bias is found to exist and yet our trends do not flow alongside that bias we need to ask what other mental tendencies are outweighing this minimalist bias to produce the trends that we see?

But my armchair is comfortable. Could somebody who is already up let me know if this idea is even worth investigating or if there are any studies that are relevant to it?

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