January 9, 2019 by thewashingteenian
By Jay Trovato, Librarian and Guest Contributor
There is a hidden presence haunting public discourse today. There’s no way to avoid it, either. It’s simply there, and it colors everything we think, write, and say. We intuitively know that it exists by talking to (and sometimes arguing with) others, but it is hardest to see within ourselves. I am speaking about a phenomenon called “confirmation bias.” I began reading about this aspect of human thought recently, and as I thought more about it, a lot of things suddenly began making sense.
First of all, it is important to understand that every person has a point of view based on their life experience, their thinking, and a thousand other factors too complex to fully describe. It is a set of beliefs that a person has accepted as true. This point of view can also be called a paradigm or a worldview. It is a mindset so fundamental that we see and interpret everything else through it. Concepts of right and wrong that our parents instilled in us, our spiritual or religious commitments (or lack thereof), and our political orientation are all examples of deeply held beliefs that can form part of our worldview.
Our worldview exerts a tremendously strong influence on us. It drives our thoughts, our words, our actions, and our plans for the future. It is at the very core of who we are.
We also know, however, that not everyone has the same point of view. There are aspects of my worldview that will undoubtedly clash with the worldview of someone else. So, what happens when I receive information that conflicts with the beliefs inherent in my worldview?
This is where confirmation bias comes in. If someone tells me something that doesn’t agree with my worldview, the reflex action of my mind will be to reject the information without really evaluating whether or not the information is true. The opposite is also true: if I receive information that agrees with my worldview, I will tend to accept the information without thinking critically about it.
The problem with confirmation bias is that it stops us from considering a valid truth claim, or else encourages us to believe a false claim that happens to correspond with our worldview. For example, there are people who believe that horoscopes give accurate information about the future. Others have a deeply held belief that the government has secret technology that implants thoughts into people’s minds against their will. There is an entire holiday devoted to the idea that a magical figure named Santa Claus – who all year long constantly keeps track of whether children are being bad or good – flies all around the world on the night of December 24th in order to give the good children presents that he and his elves made at the North Pole.
All the foregoing ideas are believed or known by almost everyone to be false. However, think for a moment about a child who believes in Santa Claus. He or she sees Santa Claus at malls and Christmas events, hears songs and watches movies about him, and (perhaps most importantly) has parents who teach the child about Santa. The child’s worldview is then inclined to believe in the existence of Santa, so his or her confirmation bias will screen out information that suggests that Santa is not real. Usually, the “magic” will not be broken until the child’s parents tell the child that Santa is just pretend. The strength of the parents’ word tilts the child’s confirmation bias in the other direction, probably confirming a truth that the child had been suspecting but not willing to see. Now, when the child’s younger friends and family members talk about Santa, he or she will not be re-persuaded to believe.
Television, websites, and social media are overflowing with truth claims that we are given to evaluate. We must be careful not to allow our confirmation bias to sway our reasoning when we consider the information we are being offered as “truth.” If we blindly and repeatedly believe a certain source because it happens to line up with our existing worldview, we cease to be thinking persons. Unless we are willing to stand up to confirmation bias – both our own and that of others – we are doomed to become mindless mouthpieces for the 24-hour propaganda machine.