“How did he get on this committee?” she asked. Several years ago I was sitting with a friend as we looked over the names of people who had been assigned to committees of an upcoming Presbyterian General Assembly. Committee members were assigned (and I believe still are) randomly by a computer program. As we scanned the names of the committee members that would be dealing with an especially controversial topic, we discovered the name of a person who was widely known to be a vocal advocate for one side of the controversy, the opposite side from my friend. “How did he get on this committee? It’s so obvious they stacked the deck against us.”
Then, not three minutes later, we were looking at the names for another committee that was also had been assigned controversial business. On the list was man who my friend knew well and she knew he as was a strong voice for the position she supported. She remarked, “Truly it was God’s hand that put him on that committee.”
Over the years, this story has come to mind over and over again, both in the church and outside of it. Allan Bevere recently linked an article that I think gets to the heart of the problem, As media preys on confirmation bias, we become polarized.
... Confirmation bias is a member of the family of cognitive biases that inhabit our brains. Cognitive biases are instances of evolved mental behavior. They resemble mental shortcuts that have evolved in our brains over time. Our collective confirmation biases impact how we think and how we process information. They impact how we make decisions. Sometimes they can lead us astray.
Confirmation bias creates in people a tendency to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. It causes us to selectively seek out and interpret information that supports our own conclusions and beliefs.
In other words, if you are a Republican, you will inherently gravitate to candidates, literature and programming that support your position. Democrats do the same thing. Of concern to me lately, though, is that the bias in our news media seems to be exploiting our confirmation biases. This, in turn, contributes to the polarization of American politics. ...
...In my view, our news media and television in particular have learned to make money by preying on our confirmation biases. Hardcore Republicans watch Fox News. Hardcore Democrats watch MSNBC. Driven by confirmation biases, viewers lock into the news programming that most reflects their own conclusions and judgments. Conservatives may view Fox as their only alternative to the otherwise biased liberal media, but nonetheless, they are still watching Fox. Many I know watch it all the time.
The networks seem to have decided that if our confirmation biases attract us to news that supports our beliefs, they might as well give it to us. If our perspective is supported all the time, we will stay tuned. All they need to do is pick a side and stick with the story. That equates to loyal viewers, which increases advertising revenue for the network. It also may equate to lousy, borderline anti-social “news” broadcasts. But given the financial realities of the world in which we live, it should come as no surprise that this is occurring. ...
...One would think this would contribute to the polarization of our society, and in fact, it does. One of the effects of confirmation bias is “attitude” or “belief” polarization. As we unknowingly pursue and interpret information in a manner consistent with our beliefs, our positions become more polarized. The de-evolution of the news media from responsible journalism to biased reporting has no doubt contributed to the polarized, uncompromising nature of our electorate.
Our cognitive biases are exploited by the Internet, too. If you are a politically active person with strong opinions on politics, ask yourself whether your inbox contains any messages from individuals whose perspectives differ from your own. All of the mass-forwarded emails that assault our computers every day take a toll on our perspective. They contribute to belief polarization....
This paragraph is important.
... None of us, of course, is immune from confirmation bias. We all have it. The best we can do is be aware of it and try to combat it. We need to demand more from our news sources. We need to actively seek out information that supports views different than our own, and seriously consider it. We need to change the channel more often. ...
I've heard that the deeper into confirmation bias we go, the more a physiological change begins to happen. Supposedly, as we find confirmation for our views about controversial issues, endorphins are released. Incessant searching for confirmation can become a type of addiction. Supposedly, when we encounter information that counters our view, cortisol gets dumped into the system, motivating us to avoid such encounters (or to have such encounters in anticipation of an endorphin generated high coming from vanquishing an enemy).
Whether or not the physiological consequences are all that strong, it is clear to me that confirmation bias is a powerful influence. We all do it. (If you think you don't, then you aren't being fully honest with yourself.) It is a natural and useful process enabling us to cope with a world that is vastly more complex than our limited human faculties are capable of processing. And that suggests a few things to me.
First, when it comes to seeing confirmation bias evidenced in others, especially in opponents, I need to chill out. If ever Jesus's instruction to take the log out of my own eye before getting a speck out of our brother's eye applied, it is here. Compounding the confirmation bias evidenced in my sister or brother is my own smug confidence that I never err in this way. Maybe each time I begin to engage others when I see ugly forms of confirmation bias evidenced, I should see this as a spiritual discipline, prompting me to examine and repent of my own biases before I engage.
Second, I probably need to embrace the fact that, to a degree, confirmation bias is a natural and necessary part of being human. But I also need to be on my guard from seeking out confirmation simply to make me more secure or to reinforce my disdain for others. I need to be aware of those who have something to profit (political power? self-affirmation? TV ratings?) by helping me confirm my bias.
Finally, confirmation bias can also be a way of developing community, reinforcing community with those who share my bias over and against those who do not. Yet somebody once suggested, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." Love isn't about having warm fuzzies. It's about seeking the good of the other, especially people I don't like. I suspect one of the biggest remedies to excessive confirmation bias is to resolutely stay in community with those how don't share my bias, and ponder what good I can do for them.