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  • Writer's pictureHoward Thompson

The Power of Positive Confirmation Bias & Social Connections


Just returning from a much-needed family vacation in the United States, I found that my YouTube algorithm had cleverly picked up on my location, shifting my content feed to videos originating from America. The month of May, rich with university graduations across the country, influenced my recommended videos to be awash with speeches from these momentous occasions. Headlines boldly proclaimed, "Speech that broke the internet" and "The greatest speech ever".

Typically, I overlook such grandiose claims, but there was one video that managed to capture my curiosity. Its title was plain and straightforward, "Mark Rober Address to MIT Class of 2023". I made the safe assumption that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respected and renowned, would have handpicked a speaker worth my time. And that assumption was, in fact, correct.

Mark Rober is a name synonymous with engineering innovation, invention, and engaging YouTube content. He gained notoriety for his ingenious science and engineering projects, which he shares with his audience on his YouTube channel. As a mechanical engineer by training, Mark's impressive resume includes contributions to leading institutions such as NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Apple Inc, where he partook in pioneering initiatives.

However, it was his ability to interweave his technical acumen with a knack for enthralling storytelling that catapulted him to YouTube fame. His channel has reeled in millions of subscribers, making him a highly revered figure in online science communication.

Surprisingly, Mark's parting words to the attentive crowd of MIT students, faculty, and parents, diverged from what you might expect from a YouTube sensation like him. It certainly caught me off guard. Here, I've transcribed Mark's profound concluding thought:

Foster your relationships.
A sad truth about getting older is that life gets busier and busier, and it gets harder and harder to make really close friends as you did here in school. This isn’t great, because we evolved to be social cooperative creatures. 50,000 years ago conditions were much harsher. Those who were more inclined to cooperate with their fellow humans were also more likely to succeed and pass on those cooperation genes. So, we have inherited the brains designed for social interactions and we are hard-wired to cooperate with other people…But in today’s society it is really convenient just to isolate yourself; you can attend a board meeting from your kitchen table, you can order food in the shower, you can bank on the toilet, you can even look for a new apartment without leaving your apartment. It is easier to stay anonymous in the big cities verses the small tribes of our ancestors where everyone knew each other, which mean we have to actively work to foster meaningful relationships. Because I know this can be harder for some than for others, here is a life fact that I have found that really helps. Confirmation bias is when your brain ignores evidence that doesn’t support your beliefs and then it cherry-picks the evidence that does. Generally when people hear this term they think it is a broken, unscientific, way for our brains to approach the world. And this is true but you can judo-flip it to your advantage. The trick is to positively apply confirmation bias to your relationships. If you assume good intentions on the part of friends and family and you tell yourself you’re lucky to have them, your brain will naturally work to find evidence to support that. That’s just how our brains work. If you tell yourself that your fellow humans are inherently good your brain will find evidence of that everywhere and that will reinforce your outlook. The opposite, unfortunately, is also true. Basically, whether you think the world and everyone in it is out to hurt you or help you, you’re right…[for instance] if you get it in your head that your partner is selfish or inconsiderate or wilfully refusing to take out the garbage, that creates a negative feedback loop of confirmation bias seeking to find further evidence that your spouse is a jerk even when good faith efforts are being made. This hack works not only for spouses friends and family but also for total strangers who may infuriate you.

Incredibly this very same principle was written about in 18th century Sweden by another renowned scientist and engineer, Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg wrote of what he called the affirmative principle:

There are two principles [a person can live by]. One leads to complete folly and insanity; the other, to all understanding and wisdom. The first is to deny everything. It is to say in our hearts, "I cannot believe these things until I am convinced of them by what I can understand or sense." This is the principle that leads to complete folly and insanity, and it should be called the negative principle. The other is to affirm the teachings of doctrine that come from the [Bible], or to think and believe inside oneself that they are true because the Lord has said so. This is the principle that leads to all understanding and wisdom, and it should be called the affirmative principle. (Secrets of Heaven 2568.4)

Of course this passage is directly about the Bible and Mark Rober was talking about people. But Swedenborg, in another passages, explains that the Bible has different levels of meaning. Specifically he notes in several places that the Bible is not only telling a story of characters and cultures thousands of years ago, but also telling the story of the true nature of God (the Lord) and of our own human nature. In other words, in addition to the Lord the Word is more about the person reading it than about the characters in the book.

Imagine the richness of your life when person to person you choose the engage with the good in a person, the good in all people.

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