Tomorrow’s Election and Confirmation Bias


Confirmation bias is one of the most ubiquitous psychological phenomena on planet Earth. If you don’t know what it is, you should learn. And if you do know what it is, you should start paying even more attention to it. It’s everywhere and it affects everyone.

I think the all-time best description of confirmation bias is captured by an old Yogi Berra story. One day, when a player on Yogi’s team was called out on a close play at second base in a crucial game, Yogi went charging onto the field to protest the call. The umpire explained that he, unlike Yogi, was an objective observer and that he, unlike Yogi, had been only about 5 feet from the play, while Yogi had been over 100 feet away, seated in the dugout. When Yogi heard the umpire’s logic, he became EVEN MORE ANGRY than before and snapped back, “Listen ump, I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it” (adapted from Leber, 1991).

There’s little doubt about the relevance of confirmation bias for tomorrow’s election. Liberal bloggers and pollsters see data suggesting an Obama victory while conservative media personalities counter-predict a Romney landslide.

As in the Yogi Berra example, confirmation bias explains why two presumably objective individuals can observe the same incident and draw starkly differing conclusions. After all, it’s impossible to suspend our personal beliefs and rely exclusively on logical data. We all naturally interpret and spin the data. Republicans look at recent economic figures and claim they’re caused by failed economic policies. Democrats look at the same data and note that Obama inherited a dismal economic situation and that we’d be far worse off if he hadn’t provided a stimulus and increased government spending.

The confirmation bias is everywhere all at once. If I were to wake up one morning believing abortion is murder, immigrants are illegals, and gays are sinful—my perceptions and behaviors would follow . . . and I’ll be more inclined to view individuals with darker skin as intruders who threaten my lifestyle, I’ll reject the mainstream media as having a liberal bias, and believe deeply that Fox News offers fair and balanced reporting.

But if somehow a miracle occurs and I wake up the next day believing women have the right to make their own medical choices, that many immigrants are just seeking a better life like my Italian forebears, and that gay-ness is a natural biological disposition—you can imagine how I might feel when I turn on my radio and accidentally listen to the Glen Beck show. It’s likely that I’ll pick a art his statements and question the source and validity of his facts.

My point is not to claim that one side has all the correct answers and if you think that, you’ve been drinking far too much Kool-Aid. Instead, my point is that we should all look at ourselves and question our biases. In fact, as you read this blog your response to the words on the screen will be affected by confirmation bias . . . and to the extent that you find yourself agreeing with or debating my position will likely have more to do with you and your beliefs and personal history than the accuracy or truthfulness of this blog.

As a final example, let’s look at the potential Presidential election outcome tomorrow. If you’re a liberal and Romney is elected you’ll be more likely to wonder if Tagg’s ownership of Ohio voting machines and voter suppression had more to do with the outcome than Romney’s desirability or credibility. On the other hand, if you’re a conservative and Obama wins, you may be inclined to blame it on voter fraud or an ignorant electorate. And if I’m correct and confirmation bias is ubiquitous, you may already be preparing your explanation for tomorrow’s election outcome.

Remember these words: “I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it” and try your best to cope with tomorrow’s results—either way.  

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5 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s Election and Confirmation Bias”

  1. Hi John – great column, and of course there is confirmation bias, it affects everyone, and therefore it affected you when writing this column (I noted you used the word “miracle” when describing a left leaning position, but no such adjective for a right leaning position). As for polling, I now enjoy the Real Clear Politics average of all polls — http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/us/general_election_romney_vs_obama-1171.html … Somehow the averaging “seems” to weed out some bias. And on the notion of “bias” I’d like to ask you a question. Ever since “objectivity” was taught in the journalism courses I attended in the late seventies at U. of P. (where you taught for a while, I believe), I have been looking for examples of it in media. While they seem few and far between, I still believe one can indeed strive for it — or do you you contend that confirmation bias makes that impossible? And if so, what then of the pursuit of Truth in journalism, science, and education?

    1. Thanks Scott.

      Of course I was affected, despite efforts at objectivity.

      Nope. I don’t think there’s such a thing as objective journalism. There is always conflict of interest and always bias. I think we manage it through self-scrutiny, but that’s never enough, which is why we need editors, feedback, and checks and balances.

      Thanks for your comments and I hope you’re doing well.

      John

    2. BTW Scott. I always wanted to apologize to you for whacking you on the helmet at one particular football practice where I got a little overly worked up over what, at the time, seemed important and what, in retrospect seems rather silly.

      And so sorry about that:).

      John

  2. Hi John… you never know… that wack may be just what I needed! : ) Always admired your toughness on the team — I’m probably not the only one who received a good hit from you. But no apologies needed — that was the game, no? And you played it with good spirit, to the best of your strength, and with good heart.

    You’re right about the checks and balances thing — this is what our government was structured to do. And, we’re supposed to debate in our Senate and House — America is a place of free thought and differences of opinion. I just hope that we can find our way back to common ground and work together to fix what needs fixin, after the requisite period of differences. Guess that means we’ll have to agree to disagree — to confirm our confirmation bias — but then come together in the end.

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