Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that the past few weeks have afforded you a few opportunities to observe humans behaving badly on the Internet. Maybe even more than a few. The Syrian refugee crisis has polarized people—particularly Christian people, sadly—in a way that few issues that I can recall have. Ever since, “the post” and the many unpleasant responses it generated, I have a rapidly expanding email folder full of often very kind messages from people around the world that often begin with something like, “I’ve been so discouraged lately by the things I’ve been reading about the refugee crisis online…”
Me too. Slinging links to articles at one another online and then fighting about them in nasty and often abusive ways in comment sections (and then calling it “discourse”) seems to just be what we do these days. Particularly when bad things happen in the world. And particularly when said bad things touch upon some of our deepest fears and anxieties.
(For those wise souls who tend to avoid social media for precisely these reasons, I laud your discipline, rationality and general good sense.)
As I was staring uncomprehendingly at the latest of what must be nearly thirty messages from a handful of blog commenters (I blocked them months ago, but they seem not to have realized this and continue to pour forth the vitriol into my blog’s spam folder) whose sole purpose in life seems to be to (graphically) convince me that I am a terrible Christian and that I will realize just how terrible a Christian I am when a Syrian refugee jihadi terrorist is about to slit my throat (or my wife’s), I began to wonder about why people hold the views they do, and about why these views seem so utterly resistant to change or even modification. Why does quite literally nothing that I say seem to make even the slightest dent in their view of the world? Why do the stark and impermeable categories within which they lump human beings seem so utterly incapable of being breached?
Perhaps similar questions have occurred to you, too. Many of us, after all, have people in our lives who, whether in face to face conversation or in their online sharing, seem to always say or share the exact same kinds of things. Their Facebook updates are a steady parade of articles and commentary reinforcing the same pro-this anti-that view of the world that you find rather odious. A steady drip, drip, drip of fear-mongering and hatred and anti-refugee rhetoric. Perhaps you, too, often find yourself asking, through clenched teeth, as you ponder again why you accepted this friend request in the first place, Why does everything you say/share sound exactly the same?! Have you ever considered reading any other “news” sources? Do you not see that there are other, more hopeful and inspiring stories out there (not to mention factual?!)? Are you not aware that the nasty rumour you’re sharing was disproved weeks ago by this article from a source that I like that I will now share on my timeline because I’m so annoyed at you for being incorrigibly stupid and culpably immoral….
Ah, yes, there’s the rub. We all do it, don’t we? We all tend to gravitate toward and share content that confirms what we already think/believe/are convinced of. It has surely ever been thus, but the Internet allows us to see the out working of confirmation bias in lurid, comprehensive, and depressing detail. In an ocean of content and amidst a cacophony of digital noise that we cannot possibly keep up with, we tend to screen out and select only those voices that nicely align with our own. We so often can’t be bothered to actually read opposing viewpoints or to engage in a conversation where our mind might actually be changed. And so we plod ahead, wearisomely trading links and barbs and passive-aggressive insults. Our digital selves become a steadily updating running commentary on our rightness and our virtue (and, perhaps more importantly, upon our enemies’ wrongness and regrettable catalogue of vices!).
This is true irrespective of the content of our views.
It is just as true for that person who seems to spend their entire day digging up obscure stories about how every refugee is secretly hell-bent on tearing down Western civilization as it is for the person whose status updates are a steady stream of feel-good fuzzy refugee warmness that fails to acknowledge that there are more complex and less-inspiring stories out there, too. This is just how we are wired, as human beings. Our views, we are convinced, are the result of careful thought and reasoned analysis (or at least warmhearted optimism and compassion, for heaven’s sake!). The people we disagree with are probably just stupid. Quite likely evil, even.
We like our beliefs, after all. They have served us reasonably well. And, more importantly, we have often invested many years in them. We have read books and articles; we have listened to podcasts and lectures (if we’re gluttons for punishment, possibly even a sermon or two). We have had conversations with wise people who we respect. Together, these have had a galvanizing effect upon our convictions. To concede that we might be wrong (or even a bit less right) would be to throw away all the years we have given to the fortification of our ideas and the concomitant curation of our identities that this has proved so useful toward.
So what do we do? Are we locked into the worldviews we inherited and inhabit? Are we slaves to our biases? I don’t think so. Not necessarily, at least. But I think that we must start by at least acknowledging that confirmation bias describes not only those whose views we dislike, but ourselves, too. This is all of us. We are all biased, and we all seek out reinforcements for these biases. All the time. Especially online.
This doesn’t mean that we throw out our convictions or that we (hopelessly) try to adopt some kind of bland, nebulous position that says we’re all right in our own way and that the sincerity of one’s belief is more important than the content. God help us, no. It just means that for starters we try to consistently recognize and remember that we are not so very different from those we disagree with. The same needs are being fed in all of us as we parade online with our arsenal of rightness and virtue and (impossibly) imagine that it will convince all those bad, wrong, heartless people once and for all!
And, of course, it’s not a bad idea to name our biases explicitly. For my part, I am unapologetically biased in the direction of the love I see manifested in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. I will, consequently, always seek out and cling to any scrap of evidence I can find that boosts my conviction that this self-giving, other-oriented love tells the truth about how the world should work and where the world is going. I will prioritize anything that confirms my suspicion that this love is the truest word our world has ever heard, and I will do so even when the plentiful alternatives that point to a world where this love seems foolish and naïve abound. I want this to be true. Desperately.
This bias will determine how I read other parts of Scripture that seem to describe a more fearsome and vindictive God. I will refuse to believe that the God I see in Jesus—the one who taught us to love our neighbour as ourself, even when that neighbour is an enemy, the one who prayed, “Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing” as they drove spikes into his hands and feet, the one who is described elsewhere in Scripture as the truest picture of God we will ever receive—will somehow change tactics and character when it’s time to get rid of the badness once and for all. I want this to be true. Desperately. For my own badness, never mind the world’s…
These are my biases. Now you know. As if you didn’t already.