Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias by Peter Burrows 5/18/15

The Internet is a great source of facts, opinions, and sometimes myths and lies, and while in theory it should make us all better informed, I’m afraid that it more frequently makes us just more opinionated.  An article by Alsesh Houdek in The Atlantic a few years ago makes this point: “We weigh facts and lines of reasoning far more strongly when they favor our own side, and we minimize the importance of the opposition’s argument. —to the extent we internalize these tendencies, they injure our ability to think and see clearly.”(1)

This tendency is called  “confirmation bias” and it’s always been with us, just easier to exercise these days thanks to the Internet. Furthermore, Houdek says that studies “show that this effect is stronger in well-informed, politically engaged individuals. —- By blocking our ability to have meaningful conversations, this effect is actually harming political discourse.”

I agree with Houdek, and I would add that this inability to have meaningful conversations is caused by emotional attachments, for whatever reason, to one side of an issue.  The more emotional, the less logical we are, which is what I think Houdek is saying when he says “the extent” to which we internalize our point of view. In other words, the more we identity with a point of view, the more our egos are involved, and the more likely we are to get emotional about it.  Where emotions are involved, logic and rationality go out the window.

We are all prone to this very human tendency, and it‘s easy to identify it in yourself and others.  If you find yourself getting upset with someone’s point of view, you are guilty. Ditto for anybody who gets emotional about an issue.  Usually, the best thing to do is avoid the topic if emotions are likely to get riled.  Don’t you have friends that you never discuss politics, or religion, or abortion, or something with?

This is a lesson we learn as we get older.  Furthermore, the older we get, the more things get sorted out into important and not important. There’s a funny chart that perfectly illustrates the point.
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Fortunately, most folks are open to reason, and most folks just don‘t have emotional opinions on many hot-button issues.  For example, on the topic of raising the minimum wage, most people think it’s a good idea, but most people also think workers shouldn’t be paid more than they earn. If you’re emotionally committed to raising the minimum wage, you won’t understand that.

What got me started on this topic was a Facebook posting by a liberal friend on the topic of global warming. It was an emotional article, and my friend’s reaction was emotional.  Global warming should be a mater of scientific objectivity, which it certainly is not. In fact, both sides claim science is on their side! More on that in the next article.

(1) “How Partisans Fool Themselves Into Believing Their Own Spin – Science shows that we often allow our moral judgment to overshadow factual arguments.”   Alesh Houdek, The Atlantic Nov 20, 2012

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