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.