Do you suffer from confirmation bias? Yes, friends, confirmation bias has always been a problem and it’s a big problem now. We’re told it’s related to apophenia (yes, the dreaded apophenia). Apophenia (apowhatia? a-po-FEEN-ee-a) is the tendency to mistakenly see connections between unrelated things. As – broadly – in the supposed connection between bad luck and stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. (About which there’s no connection. None whatever. So you can step on cracks with abandon and not a single back will be broken.)
Confirmation bias takes place when someone remembers or favors information that supports what they already believe or what they want to believe. If I hear a bunch of factual information but remember only the points that support what I already believe, that’s confirmation bias. If I interpret things in ways that support what I already believe, that’s confirmation bias. Let’s say, for example, that I’m told ten positive things and ten negative things about someone. If the person is a friend, I’m likely to forget the negative things or decide they don’t really matter. If the person is not a friend I’m likely to go the other way: The positive things won’t register or I’ll decide that the negative things matter much more than the positive things.
It gets worse. Supposedly unbiased information can be presented in ways that encourage confirmation bias. A news report about an event might present information in such a way that viewers are more likely to have negative feelings about the event. Or someone’s accomplishments might be listed in small type while her failings might be listed in big red letters. Both were reported: Where’s the problem? Political ads are famous for encouraging confirmation bias. They’ll use an unattractive photograph of the person they’re attacking, or they’ll play spooky music while describing the opposing candidate. Sound familiar?
Today’s world is so fragmented that we can easily end up being exposed only to things we agree with. By paying attention to some things and ignoring others we can fashion and inhabit whole worlds that are at once reassuring and fictional. We can surround ourselves only with people who agree with us in every respect.
Confirmation bias is a problem because it distorts our understanding of reality. Decisions based upon confirmation bias are likely to be bad decisions: We take the wrong courses of action; we put our money in the wrong places; we elect the wrong people.
The refreshing thing about reality is that it’s real. It is what it is. It ain’t what it ain’t. It’s there, ready to be discovered and appreciated. It’s also resilient. Something that’s true doesn’t stop being true just because some of us refuse to believe it. Happily, we can check our facts and investigate our assumptions. We can live in the light of truth: “[A]nd you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) Amen? Amen.
Here’s three bits of resilient truth: This is God’s world. It’s grounded in Love. You are beloved.