Executive Confirmation

Like most of us I can become fixated on a topic and not let it go. Since I am an academic nerd right now that concept is confirmation bias. This is the tendency we have to favor evidence that confirms our previous beliefs. Once we believe something then we look for evidence that proves that our beliefs are correct. We discount evidence that it is incorrect.

We see this in sports all the time. A dribbler collides with a defender. Is it a charging foul on the offensive player or a blocking foul on the defensive player? If we are honest then the answer is whether the offensive player is on my team or the other team. It is hard to look objectively at such a situation and state that your own allegiances do not play a role in what you see.

Now what does this mean in the real world? In my obsession with confirmation bias, I have come to realize how much confirmation bias controls how we think. A great sociologist – John Stewart – recently demonstrated this phenomenon. Listen to him, especially to the last part of this great thinker’s presentation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vgil5gKBwWE

Okay so maybe he will not get tenure where I work but the core of what he is presenting is confirmation bias. When Republicans claim executive privilege then they use the same arguments Democrats use today to defend it. And Democrats sounded like Republicans do today back when they attacked Bush’s use of executive privilege. How could both parties be so hypocritical in their approach to this issue? You got it right. Confirmation bias. Both parties want to show the other party to be wrong and so they make the same arguments they dismissed only a few years ago. Winning the argument, rather than understanding this issue of executive privilege is all that is important to these politicians and so they recycle arguments, not based on the soundness of the argument, but based upon whether the argument confirms or denies their current political belief.

It is depressingly easy to point out the hypocrisy of both Democrats and Republicans. But we all should be on guard for confirmation bias. It distorts our ability to conduct critical analysis and inflates our self-perception of our objectivity. We find ourselves looking for reasons why we have to hold onto our beliefs rather assess the soundness of those beliefs. Asking questions about our beliefs and rejecting easy answers given to us by those who support those ideas is healthy. Maybe if a few Democrats and Republicans rejected such answers they would not support ideas they so recently discounted and make an honest assessment about the use of executive privilege.

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  • Mike McG…

    Great post. My intrigue with confirmation bias has been piqued by reading Jon Haidt’s *The Righteous Mind.* I think his moral intuitionism is descriptive, not prescriptive, and consequently isn’t in conflict with Christian belief. Morality does ‘bind and blind’ independent of its authenticity.

    I’m wondering whether sociologist and social psychologist readers know of anyone applying Haidt’s work to the Christian space and, more particularly, to the sometimes vicious Catholic culture wars. Much obliged.

  • George

    I do not know of anyone really doing confirmation bias within the Christian church. I wish I had the time to really explore and help Christians deal with it in a thoughtful way. I have heard of Haidt’s work but not really read it yet. Wish I could provide you some direction on this as this is a needed topic internally for us Christians as well as externally as we deal with those outside our faith.