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.”
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