Monday, April 4, 2016

The Claw of Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a serious problem. Despite the wealth of information available to us, it is possible that this overflow of information can lead to cherry-picking, causing us to focus on smaller, opinionized "snapshots" instead of the larger picture. Repeated conditioning can lead to this effect.

Some Bias-inducing methods

What does confirmation bias look like? Some examples from the lives of another may help us find it in ourselves. As such, I have been keeping track of some situations that can easily lead to one-sided opinions. With this being an election year, it hasn't been terribly difficult.

  • A simple technique is to state an unfounded or untrue statement as a question. Newspapers and online articles are notorious for this. Is Donald Trump the next Hitler? What does your doctor really know about alternative medicine? 

    Most people aren't like this.
  • Representing the opinion of a few as the outrage of many. In my church, we have a tradition of showing support for our leaders with a semi-annual sustaining, similar to a vote. Although it is usually unanimous (people tend to not join churches that they don't agree with), we recently had a conference where about five people loudly voiced their opposition. Although the difference between 100% and 99.99% is remarkably small, this very noisy, very small minority is often mistaken as a much larger force.

  • Selective presentation of information. The more overweight someone is, the less likely they're going to show off a full-body photograph.

  • Mixing opinions in with fact. This tends to happen most often in arguments about religion and politics. 

  • Idea Association If someone can link the entire southern United States to the idea of inbreeding, racism, and dull-wittedness, they've destroyed the ethos of multiple States in one fell swoop.

The Pond of Prejudice

Salty water, like strong opinions,
 should not be thrown in the faces of others
Our minds act as lakes, with rivers constantly pouring ideas into a repository.
When these streams are diverse and clean, they can fill our minds with a refreshing environment that allows facts to swim freely. When our sources are unclean or overly salty, only the most basic of facts and commonplaces can live on.

I recently read of an interesting study that illustrated this effect perfectly. A recently published book cites a study where participants were shown a picture of a white man and a black man. The white man was holding a knife in the picture, while the black man was unarmed. The study showed that a startlingly high number of test subjects--both black and white-- remembered the black man holding the knife in the picture. Although I disagree with the conclusions the author reached about how much action we should take concerning such issues, I do feel that we need to be aware of our biases before we use them.
This picture left intentionally vague

A slightly less recent example also makes this point clear. Although the link between autism and vaccines has clearly been proved false, there are still influential people who hold to such views. Some of them, like Robert de Niro hold to their old ways because the issue is steeped in emotion. Others do so because they hold others (Mommy bloggers, their yoga teachers) in higher respect than they do scientists.

Overcoming Old Ways of Thinking

The question on how to confront confirmation bias is one we must answer. Should we eliminate bias? Unfortunately, such a thing is impossible. However, we can close some saltwater streams and open our brain to fresh waters. Some ways we might do this:

  • Build a diverse group of friends. In high school, joining the debate team was one of the best choices I have ever made. The mix of strong friendships and strong opinions led to intelligent discussions and rounded minds.
  • Recognize demographics. It seems that Bernie Sanders' support is either the next Messiah or simply a radical candidate, depending on who you ask. Similarly, the recently released Batman vs Superman is either a rotten flop or an above average film. We need to recognize who gives us our opinion before digesting it.
  • Beware sensationalism. Buzzfeed and similar sites have shifted our focus from facts to emotion. Colbert and Stewart, although reporting news, have a greater focus on eliciting laughs than anything else.
Although bias is deeply ingrained, once we recognize it, we can control it. In an age where Google can bring the answers we want straight to us, perhaps we should start looking for the answers we need instead.

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