We have all experienced the frustration of speaking to a conspiracy theorist whose belief in extraterrestrial visitors, cold fusion, or a connection between brain cancer and mobile ‘phones is utterly unshakeable.
One of the ways people maintain this kind of belief is by seeking out evidence which confirms their belief and rejecting or ignoring anything which does not.
Although conspiracy theorists take this to the extreme, a tendency to think in this way (called confirmation bias) is wired into human beings.
Because it is easier to process information that we are already familiar with, once we have formulated an belief, we tend to stick with it, looking for ways to make it work in every situation.
The problem is that sometimes our cherished idea simply wrong, and confirmation bias prevents us rejecting it so that we can start to formulate a better explanation. Confirmation bias is illustrated perfectly in the video below. See if you can solve the puzzle (without reading the answer first).
When they heard the first series of numbers, everyone guessed that the rule was that each number was double the one before. However, when they everyone was told that this was the wrong rule, they did not immediately try to think of a new one. They kept applying their first idea, as if repetition would solve the problem. Confirmation bias led them to keep trying to confirm their first idea.
Eventually, everyone arrived at the correct answer – but the influence of confirmation bias prevented them seeing it sooner. They could not ‘think outside the box’ because all of their mental ‘processing power’ was already being used up by the attempt to make their first idea work.
Confirmation Bias in Scientology
Once you begin to ‘study’ Scientology your mind is fully occupied. There is typically an enormous volume of material that you have to read, and memorise be tested on. Also there are Scientology practices called ‘Training Routines (TRs) which occupy a lot of time and mental effort.
Arguably, the fact that Hubbard wrote so much material and required Scientologists to study all of it, in depth, is one of the reasons that Scientologists maintain such persistent belief – there is no ‘quiet time’ in the program during which you can critically examine what you are being told.
Few people have the mental processing power to keep up with all these demands, and critically examine the material at the same time. Once you have accepted Scientology, confirmation bias helps to maintain you belief in it by distracting you from alternative ideas. You only examine information that supports Scientology, and ignore sites (like this one) which deny its validity because you don’t have the time or energy to take a wider view.
Confirmation bias is of course, closely related to cognitive dissonance theory and both, working together can lead to the characteristic form of self deception seen in Scientologists.