I Know You Are And So Am I: The Dangers of Confirmation Bias

2016-10-06-1475772690-2443889-mirror.jpgI am going to admit something painful -- some days I get all of my news from Facebook because I just don't have time to be a responsible adult. Yes, it makes me think that the major world events center on people's dogs, but it has the even more insidious danger of brutally exposing me to confirmation bias. I was introduced to the term "confirmation bias" by my 17-year old daughter who brought it home from her school ethics class and, much like a scabies warning that also occasionally comes home from school, it worries me.

Confirmation bias is when you consciously or unconsciously internalize the information that supports your current beliefs and you reject the information that contradicts your views. I don't think you can avoid all confirmation bias because most individuals surround themselves with like-minded people. Honestly, who wouldn't choose to hang out with people with whom they mainly agree? Probably you learned your values from your family. You most likely have friends that don't think you are a total imbecile. Your children tend to believe what you believe, at least until they go to college and take up with a satanic drummer named Lars.

I recently saw a related TED Talk on the topic of Filter Bubbles, by Eli Pariser. It was recommended to me by my super-intellectual friend, Jenny (who watches TED Talks on purpose,) and it discusses the intentional filters that sites like Facebook and Google put in place to deliver information they know you will read. It's not an evil conspiracy. They just want you to stay where you are and click on their advertisers' ads. But when we use these sites as our main source of information, we are deliberately courting exposure to confirmation bias. Here is why I think this is dangerous.

You begin to think that people who don't share your beliefs are clearly idiots. When I do those "Where Do You Stand Politically?" tests, I am consistently left of center, although to the right of Lenin. Probably 95% of my friends on Facebook also lean left and some of the most active people in my feed post a lot of pro-liberal things. This tempts me to believe that most people are left-leaning and that any other views are not the norm. If we follow this through to its harsh conclusion, we could write off differing people or their views. When a person is surrounded by just one message, it is easy to view conflicting messages as belonging to the "lunatic fringe" - like the people who think the moon landing was staged or the world is flat or that TV's lovable purple dinosaur character, Barney, was actually based on a serial killer.

It makes hate easier and respect harder. Most people intensely dislike Nazis. Nazis have been proven by history to have forged a path that was evil and wrong, and people want to be on the side of goodness and light. The hard part is that in the murky present, it is not absolutely clear which side is right. Confirmation bias validates that our particular view is right and eliminates other information, to the point that we start to see differing views as wrong, or even an evil we should fight. Like the Nazis. And, because people tend to share the spectacular versus the mundane, we are risking a further polarized shift in our own beliefs by consuming stories with an extreme bias. Hearing just one view over and over encourages us to depersonalize the people who have opposing opinions, reducing them to villains who need to be stopped. Even if it's really just your uncle Thaddeus during Thanksgiving dinner.

You miss out on new info and outlooks. When I was young, we got our news from one of three TV networks, several "big" newspapers, and maybe a local paper. These traditional media outlets reported pretty much the exact same stories in an unbiased way in order to appeal to a very wide swath of diverse Americans. While the stories were almost certainly subtly biased (I actually took a course in 1985 on detecting bias in the media, so I'm *kind of an expert*,) the reports looked at more than one angle and were careful not to appear to take sides. News was more along the lines of impartial facts than inflammatory propaganda. However now, if you just cruise Facebook for news, you will mainly see items from your curated circle of like-minded people, almost all with a sensational bent and a definite bias that you already share. In a 2013 Pew Research study on the role of news on Facebook, 47% of people polled got at least some of their news from Facebook each week and I'll bet it's higher now. If we just use Facebook and its ilk for news, we may miss rational information from people who don't think like we do.

So what's a gal (or guy) to do to avoid the infectious, scabies-like disease of confirmation bias?

Read an opposing view on purpose. Today, bias is not only evident in many media outlets, we are encouraged to choose news with exactly the slant we want. To dilute the effect of this, we could also try to occasionally read sources we know we won't immediately like. Maybe it will further crystallize our current beliefs, but at least we will have another data point to pull out when challenged. The Pew Research Center published a graphic showing media outlets sorted by their political slant, so you can check out some other options. As a liberal, I just can't listen to Rush Limbaugh. But in the interest of fairness, if you are conservative, I will give you a "bye" on Stephen Colbert. Although I think he's awfully funny.

Find a nonpartisan source for news. The same Pew report indicates that people across at least four of the five ideological groups tend to trust The Economist, BBC, ABC, USA Today, and Google News and the Wall Street Journal. A site called AllSides.com shows headlines of the day sorted by ideological bent, side by side, so you can start to see the slant and can compare the stories. You will be relieved to note that I generally can't detect bias when I read stories from sites that are rated as "centrist" and remember, I took that one class in 1985 on detecting bias in the media! The drawback of non-biased news is that it loses the "punch-you-straight-in-the-face" impact of biased news. Which is probably the point.

It's sad to me that we need to work so hard to find non-biased news, but I'm hoping that by opening a new tab and branching out from Facebook, I will feel less partisan and more tolerant. I'm hoping I will become better informed and more able to talk kindly to people with different views. I'm sure my friends' dogs will still be there when I come back.