Fact to Fiction: Confirmation Bias

by Maggie Doyle | 11/7/18 2:00am

I’m a firm believer that astrology is complete nonsense. Still, I’ll admit, there are times when I’ve heard characteristics of an Aquarius, my zodiac sign, and thought to myself, “Oh my God, that’s so me.” The reason I, and so many others, are so susceptible to horoscopes is because we want to believe them. According to an article in The New York Times “Why Horoscopes Are Comforting,” the more we can predict about our surroundings, the more confident we feel about our survival. A longing for a sense of security is what influences us to listen to whatever supports horoscopes’ prognoses and disregard whatever refutes them. This, in essence, is confirmation bias at work. Confirmation bias is our impulse to be more drawn to and put more weight on evidence that aligns with our own beliefs.

This tendency is harmless with horoscopes, but when applied to our political beliefs, confirmation bias can be much more dangerous.

Confirmation bias is not a new idea — in fact, it was first identified by the ancient Greeks. In “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” Thucydides identifies people’s tendency to pay attention to facts selectively: “for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire.” One of the most famous early studies on confirmation bias actually used Dartmouth students as subjects. In 1954, two psychologists analyzed selective perception by asking Dartmouth and Princeton students to count all the rule infractions as they watched a movie of a hotly contested Dartmouth vs. Princeton football game. Princeton students saw the Dartmouth team make over twice as many fouls as were seen by Dartmouth students. The authors of the study concluded that “out of all the occurrences going on in the environment, a person selects those that have some significance for him from his own egocentric position in the total matrix.” More recently, in “The Web of Belief,” philosophers Willard Quine and J.S. Ullian describe this bias: “The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.”

I think most people vote out of a genuine wish for the betterment of the country. We all want to vote for what’s right for the country, and we just differ in how we see that happening. However, because of political alienation and tribalism, we place more emphasis on having been right. This need to have been right obscures our attachment to the original goal of being right.

An article recently published in The New York Times, entitled “You’re Not Going to Change Your Mind,” called attention to the “troubling” fact that many issues over which conservatives and liberals disagree — such as the effect pollution has on the environment, the effect guns have on safety and the effect immigration has on the economy — are rooted in fact rather than values. These issues are indubitably complicated, yet indubitably empirical, which should mean that research will yield answers. However, because of confirmation bias, we don’t listen to facts unless they support what we feel is true.

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, researchers Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach conducted a survey asking respondents how they thought the U.S. should react to the annexation and also whether they could identify Crimea on a map. As it turns out, the farther off they were geographically, the more the respondents favored intervention. Sloman and Fernbach observed that, “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding.” Consider for a moment that as an electorate, we do, though indirectly, determine whether the U.S. intervenes in Crimea. If our beliefs are founded on confirmation bias rather than deep understanding, what kind of future are we looking at? In another study conducted by the same professors, people were asked for their stance on political issues like healthcare, or merit-based pay for teachers. Respondents lowered how intensely they felt about their views after being asked to describe the impacts of the policies.

In “The Enigma of Reason,” Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber developed the theory of “myside bias,” which surrounds the idea that humans aren’t randomly credulous. We are better at spotting the weaknesses in other people’s arguments than we are at spotting the flaws in our own logic. In a political context, this perpetuates polarization. Somewhere along the way, we lost the ability to see from other peoples’ point of view. Because we are so sure that we are correct, and so apt to spotting the flaws in others’ arguments, we assume their basis or values are different than ours.

With the rise of tribalism in politics, our identities are intertwined with politics. According to pyschological and brain sciences professor Jay Hull, we find ecological niches that reinforce our views of ourselves.

“People tend to be in certain communities, and that leads them to be exposed to certain ways of thinking about things,” he said. “If you arrive at this belief about what you believe and who you are first, and then are attracted to those kinds of people and those kinds of news sources, for example, that would be evidence of this self verification process.”

One example of how we gravitate toward these niches is a Pew Research study that found Fox News was the main news source for 78 percent of people who identified as mostly or consistently conservative.

“With the web leading to so many different opinions, and cable television leading to so many different outlets, you can find your niche … you’re very well protected from alternative points of view, and you’re given ready counters to arguments, so that you’re defended if you ever run into an argument,” Hull said.

Our ability to truly and actively listen to others, and be open to change, will define our political climate. On this issue of confirmation bias, Hull says, “the antidote is both a free press, and a curious electorate who does their civic duty and tries to be as informed as possible, and who questions.”