Are We Biased to Believe?

Many years ago, while studying Nyāya and Vedānta, my Nyāya teacher said:  

tattva-pakṣa-pāto hi dhiyāṁ svabhāvaḥ

“The nature of the intellect is definitely biased towards truth.”

At the time, I did not understand the deep implications of this statement. Recently, while teaching Sāṅkhya-kārikā (64), I came across the same statement in Vācaspati Miśrā’s commentary. I then understood more fully the dynamic of accepting the words of others as truth. The intellect is biased toward believing rather than doubting. We tend to believe first and doubt only when necessary. 


Why? If we doubt our every experience, it will be impossible to function. For example, when I am thirsty, I buy a bottle of water. If I doubt that water is really water, then my thirst will never be quenched. Or, if I doubt that I am truly thirsty, then I will make no attempt to even obtain water. We believe and accept our sensory experiences so readily because not doing so would make even the simplest functions of life—like eating and drinking—almost impossible to complete.

Thus, we tend to believe what we see and hear, and doubt only if and when necessary. This is called svataḥ-pramāṇya-vāda (“self-authorizing judgement”).

There is yet another, deeper reason why we are biased to believe. When one of our cognitive senses, such as the eyes, comes in contact with a visible object, such as a pen, the image of the pen is sent from the eyes to the mind. The mind then sends the image to the intellect, which searches for a similar image (saṁskāra) stored in its memory (citta). On finding a matching image, the intellect realizes that the image is that of a pen, and the mind comprehends the experience.

If we doubt that our intellect has correctly matched the incoming image, we can “rethink” the perception. This significantly delays the time it takes to comprehend an experience. Imagine if we constantly doubted every judgment made by our intellect—it would take minutes to process experiences that last only nanoseconds, and we would be unable to keep up with the flow of time. It would be impossible to make judgments or decisions in real time.  

Incidentally, this also explains why “first impressions” are so important. The first time our intellect deciphers aspecificexperience, it stores the information in the memory, and that stored impression becomes the template to which all subsequent experiences of similar things are compared. Later experiences are interpreted through the lens of the first impression. This also explains why childhood experiences are so impactful on the rest of our lives.

However, there is an adverse side effect to this mental tendency: It makes us liable to be cheated. If a conman tells us something, we tend to believe him. We do not disbelieve until we are given a reason to do so, by which time it is often too late. By then, we have already been cheated. Throughout history, even the smartest people have been deceived due to their tendency to believe or trust. It is no wonder that a person like Bernie Madoff deceived astute and highly successful corporations for millions of dollars, just with his words and charismatic demeanor.

Cheating and betrayal happens especially within romantic relationships; we don’t believe that our partner would cheat us. Even though we see red flags, we tend to overlook them because of our natural bias to believe. This is why deceptive individuals and organizations initially “love bomb” their victims—generating first impressions that will take a long time to disbelieve.

We naturally assume that the people we are dealing with are honest. Only when we are forced, do we stop believing thisand sometimes, not even then! Leaders, relatives, and friends often continue to cheat, and we continue to believe, even in the face of blatant lies and solid proof of deception. Instead, we find some way to rationalize and justify the deviant behavior of a leader, lover, or friend. Moreover, human beings are averse to change. Fear of the unknown compels us to further delay entertaining serious doubts about what we believe and accept. 

The bias towards believing is helpful and essential, but we must protect ourselves from its negative side effects by being more alert and perceptive of “red flags” when further experiences do not line up with our “first impressions.”


5 thoughts on “Are We Biased to Believe?”

  1. I am going to make a cautious comment right here: the coronavirus “issue” has taught me a lot about trust in governments. Now we are having a “casedemic” during a “second wave” which coincidentally happens to be happening at a time of flu season. Additionally, some rare leader in Africa (Tanzania…they are living life normally now due to his non WHO compliant behavior, some would call him reckless but his people love him and its business as usual) tested paw paw fruits, bananas, and goats blood and they were covid positive. Tomorrow is gonna be another full 1 to 3 months lockdown here in Ireland (which does not make sense if it did not work before…for the sake of those who think it exists whilst flu is almost at zero and other respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis have been forgotten…everything is covid-19 now even a toothache i think ).Forgive me its just my silly thoughts.

    1. you really write silly about COVID19, i had a cold and tested me for COVID19. it was negative i assumed it was because i could climb stairs. The symptoms of COVID 19 are very clear and different from other respiratory diseases. The hospitals are filling up again, not because of influenza, but because of COVID 19. The best thing is to visit a COVID 19 hospital and have it explained to you, if you can’t make a rhyme out of it otherwise. Wash your hands, keep your distance and wear masks.

  2. Pretty deep content. I think mindfulness is a method to change the “initial templates” rewriting new aklista templates.

  3. Love bombs in religious organizations can take the form of enlisting members to join by being baited into a routine indulgence of singing, dancing, and feasting, with a sprinkle of spiritual knowledge, or basic sanatan dharma. Later on, after the recruit has committed to a life of service they may find him/herself in otherwise unacceptable positions, an example is of working as a professional panhandler on behalf of a community. This humble author found himself some decades ago dressed in a Santa Claus suit, white beard and all, ho-ho-ing for some seasonal periods collecting money for a community, all the while under the belief that this act was on an equal level with the highest practice of worship and religion for the age, congregational singing of the holy name of Bhagavan.

    A red flag I have witnessed over the course of time is that although a recruit is praised for his/her intelligence for taking serious interests in a community’s teachings, the pursuit of serious inquisitiveness and knowledge is restricted to those teachings presented by recent gurus. Supposedly, these recent gurus are eternal associates of Bhagavan therefore their teachings are perfect. To look into teachings by original preceptors of the tradition who are indeed universally accepted as eternal associates of Bhagavan is tantamount with ‘jumping over the guru’ which would be considered by the community as very offensive. ‘Fools dare where angels fear to tread’. These communities raise a fear level if one becomes too inquisitive and asks too many questions about the nature of God, the soul, or the path of sacred greed. Such inquisitiveness, or thirst in a student may be viewed by a community as the greatest internal threat to the prosperity and preservation of the organization. These apparent non conformists who seek truth and deep tastes are sometimes subsequently villainized. Or, after witnessing how some are set as examples of the above, one ultimately does not even dare ‘challenge’ the standard rhetoric. One finds a comfort in just keeping the peace and especially if one has already built up stock over the years in the organization as a manager or leader in a career path therein, or steady member. It may be too stressful and fearful to think of life without acceptance in a community one has for so long served and committed, even if one has outgrown ones initial needs for it.

    1. Very well expressed.

      Seeking socio-spiritual validation in religious communities is symptomatic of ignorance regarding nature of reality. Seeking “truth” and not validation, however, is valuable. As one’s knowledge and experiences expand, one breaks free of institutionalized fetters — which at the core are psychological in nature. One who has even understood a little what Sri Krishna actually says in the Gita and what Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, walks alone relishing the bliss of bhakti. A threat to establishment, though not necessarily.

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