Sunday, December 1, 2013

212. Our baggage is easy to confirm with biases

While intuitively applicable, the idea of confirmation bias is an important social concept. The ideology affects our perspective about many important areas of society—such as religion, socioeconomics, politics and philosophy.

Defined succinctly enough in Wikipedia, “Confirmation bias is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.”

While the foolery of any bias is potentially detrimental to any objective reasoning, confirmation biases attract more than a distorted perceptive—it feeds our most treasured and relied upon beliefs. I have often argued that one of the most uncomfortable things to do is to challenge one’s beliefs. It is difficult not only because of its emotional and moral elements, but also because the amount of evidence required to inspire objective thought is often insurmountable.

There is no shortage of issues that may be influenced by confirmation biases—and there is no shortage of sources willing to provide that confirmation. There is of course, personal experience, which lines up neatly with anecdotal evidence and our social groups. There are also media sources—newspaper, radio and television—as well as our institutions and their leaders, such as religions and political parties and “think tanks.”. The government may provide confirmation to biases through its laws and economic systems. Finally, we have corporate and academic confirmation through research and reports.

For those looking to have their beliefs confirmed, odds are you’ll find someone or something to support it. It may not even be intentional, one might try to be objective—but there is a natural filtering to those beliefs we hold dear.

Consider the belief that people on government assistance are lazy and take advantage of the system—costing hardworking taxpayers millions.

There is anecdotal evidence, often in conversation, or on social media—and it usually goes something like, “I was in line at the grocery store and this woman in front of me had the newest iPhone, professionally manicured nails, bought two cartons of cigarettes and then paid for her groceries with food stamps.” Media confirmation is easily found on Fox News, or any number of conservative radio shows that profile lower social classes. The Tea Party finds outrage over almost any government support and provides consistent confirmation that the taxpayers are being robbed by freeloaders. The government proceeds with a capitalistic perspective, which despite the social programs promotes the value of being educated and working hard—and getting people off of government assistance. And, of course, one can easily find a report, from maybe the Heritage Foundation, which supports one’s views that government social programs are full of waste and details the cost of individuals who fraudulently receive aid.

If this is your perspective, you’ll have no trouble finding ways to confirm it. You’ll shake your head in agreement—probably proud of finding yourself on the right side of an issue.

Of course, those who believe that individuals on government assistance genuinely need help through a tough time in their life, and society has a moral obligation to provide reasonable aid, will also find their beliefs confirmed. They’ll talk about the single mom working two low-paying jobs trying to raise her three kids. They’ll attack capitalism through examples of corporate greed and job outsourcing—and the growing wealth inequality. Maybe they’ll even embrace the social aspect of religion and its teachings of helping the poor. And surely proponents will find reports minimizing the perceived waste and fraud in government systems.

With the confirmation of beliefs so readily accessible to both sides—it’s easy to understand why many beliefs do not change.

While none of us are immune from our biases—it’s a part of who we are based on our life experiences and perspective—we can hope, at least, to sort out the most convincing arguments. That is, we need to try to relieve ourselves of our own biases and fairly evaluate the issue and evidence as though we are hearing about it for the first time.

The criteria should be a preponderance of the evidence, not confirmation through reasonable doubt. It should be weighed equally or plotted on a bell curve to attach statistical significance. We need to view it as an impartial judge, and not like someone who has a horse in the race.