Confirmation bias: The tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.
Confirmation bias is like a coin. It has two sides, Heads and Tails.
Heads I Win
If I read or hear something that conforms with my worldview, I tend to accept it without question. If I decide to check it out, I will look for sources that substantiate what I heard or read, and dismiss others that challenge it.
Tails You Lose
If you say or write something that does not conform with my worldview, I will either dismiss it immediately and forget about it, or look for sources that challenge it, and use them to justify dismissing it.
Everybody suffers from confirmation bias. It seems to be part of human nature. Nobody likes to be wrong about anything. But, of course, we are all wrong at times. Nobody’s perfect…except those imaginary supernatural beings. I am absolutely certain that the Flying Purple People Eater is always and forever perfect.
Another observation: The more controversial a subject is, the more adamant people are about their confirmation bias. Look at a few of the major issues that have divided our society in the last few years:
A substantial segment of our population still believes that the election was fraudulent, and that Donald Trump actually won. If they are presented with facts that contradict that, they will dismiss them, and quote from QAnon, Parler, Newsmax and the like. I am convinced that many of them will hold that belief until they die.
Here the controversy is over the fetus. When does it become a “person” with all the human rights that people have, including the first right enumerated in the Declaration of Independence: Life. I will venture to say that there is no “right” answer to that question, even by medical authorities, and certainly not by politicians. Everyone’s answer is weighted by philosophical and cultural/religious biases. What criteria should be used to make the decision? Who should make it? What about the rights of the woman carrying the fetus? My views on this have not changed since I was old enough to understand the issue. I suspect most people are the same.
Some people say we should stop immigration into the US entirely. Others want to limit it in various ways…race, religion, ethnicity, etc. Some on the other extreme favor “open borders,” welcoming any and all who come. Those on the extremes are the most adamant in their confirmation bias. But I think there is a fairly large contingent of our population who favor some kind of middle ground. I will stick my neck out and assert that we have to stop illegal immigration. How we do that is important. Criminalizing the people who show up at the border, holding them in pens, separating families is profoundly immoral and unacceptable. But there are other ways. Why do most of them come? They want to survive. They want a job so they can support their families. They are not murderers or rapists as some have (in)famously claimed. What if they could not get a job without a government-furnished ID that showed they were here legally? What if anybody who hired them would be prosecuted? Once that information was out there, would they still come? I don’t think most of them would.
Gay Rights vs. Religious Rights
Initially, I considered these as separate issues, but it really boils down to one: We have laws prohibiting discrimination against classes or groups of people. But religious groups claim that their sacred books instruct them that LGBTQ’s should not have the same rights as others. In particular, they oppose gay marriage, and, in some cases, access to business services. They claim that “free exercise” of their religion includes the right to disobey laws. I am certain that religious believers who hold this position will never change their mind on this, just as those who claim that all people in the country, religious or not, are subject to the laws established by government.
On some of these issues, there is room for compromise that could lead to consensus among the less than fanatical on each end. Abortion could be unconditionally legal in the first twenty weeks or so, and after that subject to review by…um…somebody. A separate issue is the Catholic Church buying up hospitals, denying abortion services and obstructing access to other providers. That has to be addressed. Immigration should be subject to some limits, but the issue of people fleeing from oppressive governments in their home country is a problem. Sending them back could be a death sentence. There are many details that need to be worked out on these issues, and the devil is in those details.
These issues are not simple, nor do they yield themselves to simple solutions. But if we want to survive as a nation, we need to address them, and people need to realize that compromise is necessary…and ignore the nutcases at both extremes.
Confirmation bias is the enemy. How do we conquer it?