When I first approached this topic, I was using instant replay video reviews from sporting events as a METAPHOR. Turns out, I was being far more literal than I realized. Even with slow-mo, zoomed in, frame-by-frame analysis, people can’t agree on what they see from yesterday’s Donald Trump – CNN dust up. In fact, we can’t agree on whether the video was doctored or not. As if we can’t even agree on reality. But the reality is: people see what they want to see. Safe or out, onsides or offsides, fumble or no, the laundry the athletes wear dictates what you’ll see.
Our brains are constantly playing tricks on us. Confirmation bias is kryptonite to our minds. At the moment, it’s also a powerful weapon for the enemies of democracy. I explored the concept of confirmation bias recently for PeopleScience.com, where I am writing a series of essays about brain boobytraps that social scientists call cognitive biases. Read on. But only if you are willing to concede that, just maybe, perhaps once in your life, you were wrong about something.
Simon & Garfunkel boiled it down to a short couplet.
“All lies and jest / Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
Sorry, I need a few thousand words.
Pick your favorite sporting event, and your favorite team, and the last time the game was delayed by a lengthy instant replay review. I’ll bet it went something like this, borrowed from my recent post at PeopleScience.com.
There’s a close play at the plate. Under a cloud of dust, the runner’s hand appears to sneak in just before the catcher applies the tag, but in real-time, it’s hard to say. The umpire signals safe. There’s an instant replay challenge. Video is shown on the board at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, and 41,000 Cubs fans cheer lustily at what they think is conclusive evidence that the call on the field was correct.
But home, watching on television, a million St. Louis Cardinals fans are certain the video shows the runner was out, and the call will be overturned. Cubs broadcasters wonder aloud why umpires are even looking at the call, the play is so obvious. Cardinals broadcasters wonder why the reversal is taking so long.
Same play. Same video. Same evidence. Same million-dollar, freeze-frame technology. Two very different conclusions. “My side is right. I’m sure of it,” people from both sides say. How can individuals looking at the exact same set of facts come to such diametrically opposed conclusions? And perhaps more curious…why are these conclusions so predictable?
Confirmation bias + Internet = deeply divided America + easy targets for propaganda. The more we fight about it, the worse things get. But you can rise above it! In fact, it’s the patriotic thing to do. Let me explain.
My first year as a journalist was the year of the Anita Hill / Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. I was covering planning board meetings in Wayne, N.J., nowhere near D.C. as this fight played out. So like most people, I truly knew next to nothing about what really happened between those two people. As with most Congressional hearings, the circus that followed didn’t really shed much additional light on the accusations. I was just learning the tricks of the journalism trade, how basically no one tells the whole truth when they are being publicly questioned, and how hard it is to really pin down “truth” in almost all situations. And I truly didn’t know what to think.
Much to my surprise, no one I knew felt this way. People either believed him or believed her, and did so with the conviction of a scientist who’d studied an issue for a lifetime. That’s bad enough — shouldn’t we all recognize our limitations as fact-finders in these situations? — but another, darker reality came clear to me. As the controversy swelled, I quickly learned that I could predict which side anyone had taken before even discussing the issue. So could you, too. Type A believed Thomas, Type B believed Hill — even before they heard any of the facts. Evidence be damned, hearing be damned, the time-honored concept in American jurisprudence that every situation deserves its own examination…well, be damned that, too. One set of people believed him, one set believed her. This wasn’t intelligent. Or fair. It’s also kind of boring. It’s as if you could put a Cardinals uniform on Hill and a Cubs uniform on Thomas and you could make people “root” for one side of the other.
That confirmation bias in action.
Confirmation bias is kryptonite to our minds. As Simon and Garfunkel sang, we see what we agree with, and disregard anything that challenges those beliefs. Actually, that’s wrong. It’s even worse. Plenty of studies on confirmation bias show that, when presented with evidence that contradicts our beliefs, most people dig in even harder. It’s as if our brains say, “Don’t give me the facts, they just make me mad! And now, I’ll never change my mind.”
Worse still, our minds have a filter in these situations that kicks in. When someone makes a point that agrees with our adopted point of view, we accept it without question. But when someone provides contradictory information, we challenge it with the full force of our interrogative skills. For example: “There are Middle Easterners in the caravan.” Folks who side with Donald Trump on immigration accept this assertion without evidence. But when journalists post pictures of young children in the caravan, this same group will begin a full-scale investigation of the photos. “Who’s paying the journalist? Who’s funding the caravan? Is that photo even from the caravan?” And so on. Watch this phenomenon next time you witness a discussion of any kind. People flip back and forth between unquestioning acceptance and Sherlock Holmes moment-by-moment.
Meanwhile, recall that, after porn, the single most popular use of the Internet is the spreading of conspiracies. Without question, the digital world is the single best tool ever invented for spreading conspiracy theories. And you know who loves a good conspiracy! Sherlock Holmes!
I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past year writing a series of essays for PeopleScience.com. I’m very proud of the result, and of the site in general. (Check out the Know Your Nuggets series) Researchers across the world have spent the past 50 years or so studying all the very human ways that people make mistakes in their perceptions of the world around them. They have blind spots. Social scientists call these “cognitive biases.” They are irrational. But as Dan Ariely put it, they are often predictably irrational. There’s hundreds of named effects now, and all of them are fascinating. The “IKEA Effect “– you value something more if you build it yourself — the ‘Identifiable Victim Effect” — statistics about death don’t move us, but a picture of a drowned child does — The “Peak End Rule” — a free dessert can make you forget how bad the dinner service was. And so on.
Confirmation bias might be the one bias to rule them all, however. And, I believe, it’s become a much bigger problem in the digital age, marred by its echo chamber television networks and only-follow-your-friends-who-agree-with-you social media.
Here’s a little bit more from my piece at PeopleScience.
Tests about the phenomenon usually go something like this: subjects are shown research about the death penalty. They accept at face value evidence that confirms their point of view, while they subject “disconfirming” evidence to intense scrutiny. Despite what the evidence suggests, subjects on both sides end up feeling even more strongly about their original point of view after the experiment.
This might seem obvious based on today’s political situation, but Stanford University researchers who ran one such study concluded that sharing information with people might not be a good way to settle political debates.
“The result of exposing contending factions in a social dispute to an identical body of relevant empirical evidence may be, not a narrowing of disagreement, but rather an increase in polarization,” they wrote.
Confirmation bias is one reason it’s so hard to change people’s minds about almost anything.
Think back to the last serious issue discussion that you witnessed. Healthcare. Immigration. National Security. Surveillance. Wages and the economy. I hope we’d all agree that these are complex topics which require multi-layered solutions implemented with nuance and care by wise people. How much of those qualities did you witness during the discussion? What you heard instead, I’ll wager, were two things.
- An echo chamber when “my-side” points were raised. Like this: “Yes! All Trumpkins are racist!” And note that today, instead of getting such affirmation from a few friends at a local pub, Facebook now automatically sorts people for you so there are hundreds or even thousands of people who think just like you telling you how right you are.
- Name calling when any cognitive disconnect was encountered. Those kids in the caravan? “It’s George Soros’ fault!” Remember the Sherlock Holmes effect here. The Internet means never having to go without a good conspiracy to beat back any facts someone might put in your way.
One last bit from my PeopleScience story:
Our dastardly tendency to draw conclusions based on scant evidence and connect dots that don’t connect also contributes to confirmation bias. In the 1950s, psychiatrist Klaus Conrad coined the term “apophenia” to describe the human tendency to see patterns in disparate events – to take two instances of lateness and paint an entire picture about someone’s work habits. He compared this “abnormal meaningfulness” to hallucinations.
That’s taking confirmation bias a bit too far, but such “abnormal meaningfulness” is often the root of a lot of old-fashioned stereotypes. If you believe older workers can’t keep up with technology, a single example of a 50-something struggling with a new app could be all you’ll need to perpetuate that mental myth, and you’ll conveniently ignore hundreds of contradictory examples.
So, while politics can sometimes feel like sports in America — just try mentally switching Democrats and Republicans for Red Sox and Yankees when watching TV some time — the tragedy that is confirmation bias + the Internet reaches far deeper into our daily lives. It causes us to make snap judgments about people and incidents which are wrong; to throw away older people, or people who are different, for no good reason.
Worst of all, folks suffering from confirmation bias — most of us, at least some of the time — are the last to know. That’s how it works. Our brains fight as if their lives are at stake to avoid admitting mistakes. But here’s another truth I hope most of you wouldn’t dispute. If you don’t have an uncomfortable, “Whoa, I was wrong about that!” moment at least once a week, you aren’t learning very much.
Often, this isn’t quite an accident.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Upton Sinclair wrote in 1930s after running for governor of California.
All this conflict we see today — confirmation bias vs. confirmation bias — it’s not really an accident. The fighting is good for someone. Plenty of people profit from conflict. Powerful people on all sides stay in power by making their side angrier and angrier. Just witness how many fund-raising emails go out after each controversy. Foreign actors benefit, too. Look at all the statements sent and repeated by bots, many Russian, aimed to sow discord. Why do they work? Because many of us are living lives that are similar to such bots, just hurling insults and unfair shortcuts like “Open Borders” or “Trumpkins” at each other.
America has real problems. We need to build roads and bridges and transportation for the 21st Century. We need to educate our children so they have a chance against the coming age of robots, and against the rest of the world, which is doing a better job of educating their children. We need to learn to get along with our neighbors. We need to do something about the plague of mass shootings. We need middle-class jobs that pay for middle-class homes. These are tough problems that require decades of thoughtful solutions implemented with persistence and inspiration. This is no time to descend into sectarian, digitally-powered Hell.
This is really the issue we are voting on today. Can we dig deep and vote for our Better Angels? Or will we vote for fear and anger and “our side?” I don’t actually care who wins on Tuesday. I care about America. And I believe that patriots should and will rise above fear, above confirmation bias, above foreign bots, and begin to tackle America’s real problems.