“How can I be sure in a world that’s constantly changing? How can I be sure?”-Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati, The Young Rascals
This year is developing to be one of the most controversial political years of the past fifty. Americans are trying to select a president, political alliances are changing, gender roles are being redefined, the nature of social relationships are different than ever before, and the ways that humans interact are all in a state of flux. There is a ton of objective research out there on every topic in existence to be studied, processed, pondered, and considered before one makes an opinion on anything. It seems that virtually no one ever changes their mind once it’s made up. People are arguing with each other, ending long-lasting friendships, and I’m sure that more than a few family gatherings have gone silent when politics is introduced to the conversation. Misleading statistics, false accusations, and out of context conversations pervade the popular media, leaving us all in the dark about what’s really going on. Despite this misinformation, everyone seems to have an opinion that they are convinced of, drinking the Kool-Aid because of something that they read online or saw on TV. And, once convinced of that “truth” no one seems to ever change their mind or reconsider an opinion.
The human animal does not do well with uncertainty. This is an evolutionary trait, dating back to the time when humans had to make quick and decisive decisions in order to survive. Once primitive tribal culture made a decision, it was usually too late to go back. Decisions had to be made quickly and decisively, it was literally a matter of life or death. Over 200,000 years later, most of us still make important political decisions using this primitive tribal logic. “Here’s what I believe, now I have to find the facts to support it.”
“Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.”-Wikipedia
Cognitive and social sciences have studied confirmation bias since the 1960s. It occurs when a person has a long held belief that is usually accompanied with some emotional attachment. The stronger the emotional attachment, the more that a person becomes convinced of the belief. When challenged, rather than reconsidering the veracity of that belief, a person frantically searches for something that confirms it, rather than challenge it. If a person can quote or recall some out of context conversation, statistic or soundbite, then they can move on to other things, feeling secure that they are on the right side, have made an intelligent decision, and generally end up feeling pretty good about themselves and their beliefs. In many cases, confirmation bias is pretty harmless. In 2016, not so much. Pay attention to how many emotional arguments, political discussions gone bad, and friendships that are impacted this year. My hunch is that you won’t not to have to wait very long. We all know how it plays out. You’re at a social gathering, and some controversial idea such as politics or religion comes up. Two people, who would otherwise be friendly and respectful of each other, have different views. There is a brief, yet sharp, disagreement followed by a long and awkward silence as both realize what’s happening but just can’t stop themselves. Someone else will invariably break in to interrupt by changing subject. Interactions progress from there, but awkwardness will linger and perhaps ruin what otherwise could have been a great time for a lot of people who have a shared social history.
Confirmation bias has always existed, but it’s never been so easy to fall into. Before the Internet, social media, and 24 hour news stations, it was the exclusive domain of the intelligent, learned, and the philosopher. Through most of man’s history, confirmation biases held by a handful of political leaders led to war, misdirected efforts of whole civilizations, and mass executions. Even some well-known and respected historical figures were aware of it:
“For it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.” -Thucydides, discussing The Peloponnesian War
“Opinion—hasty—often can incline to the wrong side, and then affection for one’s own opinion binds, confines the mind.”-Thomas Aquinas
“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside or rejects.”-Francis Bacon
When considering the seductive nature of confirmation bias, be sure to consider your own tendencies. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, we know that this is something everybody does. It helps us rationalize long-held beliefs that range from complexities such as religion and the meaning of life, to what the best kind of diet for weight loss is, or what is the best form of exercise. Be careful what logic you apply to that person that you’re bound to encounter that holds a vastly different opinion than your own. Don’t be so quick to end a friendship or important relationship because of their view on the best candidate for the presidency, whether or not Great Britain should leave the European Union, or what their views on religion are. There used to be a saying that, in social situations, to “never discuss politics or religion.” Since that isn’t likely to happen, take an emotional step back when you find yourself, or someone else, in one of those awkward arguments that will inevitably flareup. If Thucydides, Thomas Aquinas, and Francis Bacon were subject to this all too human tendency, we’re all at risk, including your crazy uncle or your spouse’s best friend.
If you face confirmation bias this weekend, at work, or in conversation follow this three-step process:
⦁ Recognize it. If you understand what confirmation bias is, you may have that “ah ha” moment. “Here it is, confirmation bias.” Observe it as if it is some lake that you don’t have to jump into.
⦁ Accept it. Suddenly, it morphs from a heated and emotionally charged argument to a natural way that human beings process complicated and emotionally charged events. Remember, no one is ever going to change a strongly held political opinion because of something that you’ve posted on Facebook. Deal with it.
⦁ Let it go. By remaining focused on the relationship that you have with what you perceive to be a misguided and misinformed individual, you are avoiding the trap of your own biases. The winds of political and social change are likely to blow in a different direction soon enough. Allowing others to have their opinions, even if you think they are incorrect, is the healthiest for your sanity and sense of connectedness.
Confirmation bias has had a major influence in the areas of politics, religion, health, science, finances, and human history, often with dire consequences. Adopt a “wait and see” attitude in your personal life and in social situations.
It’s an election year, and you know it’s going to happen.
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”- Plato
Smart guy that Plato!
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