“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” [Origins of the quote]
I’ve seen this in many contexts – notably in the world of psychology/psychiatry where it was originally coined (and where I most recently heard it), but it definitely applies elsewhere and everywhere. And it is both scarily accurate, and scary. It is a tool for tyrants as much as about professional bias. It’s called ‘Conformation Bias‘.
EXAMPLE – At one point in my life I was a dedicated follower of alt.med and often trekked off to visit the latest fad-practitioner. I blew a lot of money on these guys, and sure enough, I came away suffering the exact same problem that all my friends suddenly had.
I saw it later in a different city. There was this (self-proclaimed) expert on Asperger’s Syndrome and yup: sure enough, every kid who went to him had Asperger’s (surprise, surprise!). These well-meaning cranks were treating every patient with the same hammer. Some were downright scary; they were obsessives. I saw it elsewhere, I saw it often: “Got health problems? YOU NEED AN ENEMA! YOUR BOWEL IS BLOCKED! EVERYONE NEEDS AN ENEMA! IT’S THE ANSWER TO EVERYTHING!” (I declined the offer, BTW)
I’ve encountered people who have reacted to everything. It’s like their life-journey has imprinted them with the notion that everyone is out to get them – to make them wrong or put them down, to shame them in an argument, to steal their dignity, to rip out their core-sovereignty. These people are carrying a sort of North Atlantic Missile Defense Radar Detection System, and anything, anything, flying in the sky will trigger the alarm. All defenses will fire. Angry rebuttals. Counter attacks. Another argument begins with all the twists and tricks that are well documented elsewhere. BAM! Every time. Every conversation. And their confused victims react ditto, they rise to defend themselves, all the anger/reaction/defense patterns – and BAM! THERE IT IS: SUSPICIONS CONFIRMED!
Two clans meet in the jungle. The alpha-males immediately spring forwards, ready to defend their group, hackles up, pumping out a challenge. Moments later the other group pump up the volume too. Told ya! They’re ENEMIES! Look at the aggression! Close ranks!
My point being that this isn’t the exclusive domain of whacko health professionals. Everyone does this. Racists. Politicians. Shock-jocks. Your mother. You. Me.
Humanity evolved from some sort of proto-human/primate-thing and we still carry the genetic codes that protect us. (DID protect us.) EXAMPLE: we’re genetically programmed with an ‘instinctive’ fear of snakes. As are cats. Put a cucumber behind a cat and when it spots it out the corner of its eye it’ll freak the f**k out! YouTube is full of videos of this. Here’s one: Cat&Cucumber. Yeah: Hah-hah!
I live in Australia now, but I grew up in New Zealand which has no snakes. You’re not even taught about snakes, you’re not trained to be alert. Snakes are a non-issue. But after unexpectedly encountering blue-tongued lizards in my own Aussie back yard … POW! That ol’ snake-panic reaction sure did kick in. Blue-tongues resemble snakes by size, motion, shape and their sleek scaly texture. And their legs are tiny. Yup: I freaked the f**k out! [Why We Are Afraid of Snakes]
‘Hey Ged, Hello! It’s a long stretch between genetic fear of snakes and Confirmation Bias, mate!’
I’m not so sure. There are genes for many behaviours. Our genetic ancestry accounts for a lot, and they ALL enhance our collective survival whether biochemical or behavioural. EXAMPLE: Boys mature significantly later than girls, because those that did (long long ago) stood a better change of not being driven out by the alpha males too soon and dying in the wild without the clan’s protection and nurture. We resist diseases (until we meet humans from the other side of the world and then we’re screwed.) We like copulating, we care for our young, we maintain tight-knit social groups … But we never evolved beyond being susceptible to zillions of types of cancer. Why not? And what does it prove anyway?
It proves that Evolution Is A Thing, that’s what. Generally, cancers tend to kill us at a late age, so being susceptible to cancer does not in any way prevent us from surviving puberty, copulating, being successful parents, and passing on our cancer-prone genes. Ditto all the other diseases and conditions that beset us in old age. How many people lived long enough to ever get arteriosclerosis back in 190,000 BC? Huh?
So I’m proposing that Confirmation Bias is the cucumber in the room. No-one talks about it, but it’s always there on the floor behind you (and behind me and behind all the Trump Supporters too, and everyone else who so readily becomes convinced that they’re Always Right, or that The World is Out To Get Them so they have to carry a military-grade automatic weapon to the supermarket, or that Their God is the Only True God, or that Everyone Needs an Enema. Or whatever.)
Confirmation bias is our security blanket, no matter how you dress it up. It’s the smell of your own tribe. It’s instinctive. It’s nice to know that you’re always right. That you’re the alpha-male/alpha-female in your health-care profession. That your patients gaze up at you adoringly as your hit them with the same hammer. That you’ve always got a firm opinion about everything.
And if you’re a despotic ruler of a nation (or an officer in the public service or just your own family), it’s very easy to play upon the fears of your minions and victims. Or just fuck with their mental state. Leave some fake snakes lying around and let everyone know that you’re the one who’s gonna save them! A cucumber will suffice, but don’t get it confused with an enema.
Watch out! It’s right behind you!