My dad and I regularly get into arguments.
We’re not talking about little things, like where to get the best cup of coffee or what is the best way to get to the beach. No, my dad and I get into awful fights about big stuff, what we believe in, what we don’t, where we come from, how did we get here, the existence of god. Most of these arguments stem from one large, all-encompassing conflict related to the religion that he is still a part of and that I have long since left. He believes with a faith that seems unshakeable. I don’t. I told him one day that as sure as he is that he is right about his religion, that is how sure I am that he is wrong.
These are not fun discussions that we have. We should probably stop doing it. We’re most likely one big argument from doing serious damage to our relationship. These arguments feel like they have no end. There is certainly no chance of resolution. In the end, all I end up feeling is sort of inwardly bruised and torn. If I had to guess how he felt I would say it’s probably bewildered and profoundly disappointed.
I bring this up because it seems very familiar to a lot of the political debates that I see on Facebook and Twitter. Largely two sides. Each one absolutely certain that they are right. Arguments ending unresolved with most people feeling angry, or hurt, or bewildered. I feel the same sort of confusion that everyone else feels, the same sort of confusion that I feel while arguing with my dad.
I think, how does he not see what I’m saying? How am I telling him something and he absolutely refuses to see? When I argue about politics, I think, why do they feel that way so strongly? How can we have the same information but come to such drastically different conclusions? Facts are facts. Why can’t they see that I’m right?
I have the facts.
I’m obviously right.
See, I believe that I’m right because of a neat little thing called “confirmation bias.” What is that? PsychologyToday defines it as “the direct influence of desire on beliefs.” It’s simply wanting to believe something is true, so we do everything we can to support that belief, often sacrificing reality to do so. Maybe we do it by getting out information from sources that share our beliefs. A liberal might get their news from MSNBC. A conservative might choose to get their news from FOX news. It’s why when we look something up on the internet, we will scroll past pages and pages or sources until we find the one source that backs up our point of view.
This is why there are people out there who still think that vaccines cause autism and there are still people out there who believe that global warming is a hoax. It’s why conspiracy theorists thrive. Everyone is a search query away from finding a person, an article, a blog post that confirms everything that they believe to be true. They distrust the government, their doctors, the scientists, their teachers and now you can too!
Facts don’t matter. Science doesn’t matter. When confronted with facts, we can say, well, I still choose to believe the contrary. Like, if I tell you that the sky is blue, if you tell me that you believe that the sky is fuchsia, well, there’s not much I can do about that. Facts are testable, but beliefs are not. It doesn’t matter if all of the experts tell you that vaccines do not cause autism, if you still believe that they do.
We do it on purpose when we only get our news from only a few sources, when we only surround ourselves with people who share our view, or when we scroll past anything that might contradict what we believe. But our brains take it one step further. In the background, they are also subconsciously working on all of our biases. And we have a lot biases. You can look them up on wikipedia, or better yet you can check out Buster Benson’s cheat sheet to them. At the end there’s a pretty neat infographic as well. The point is that even when we’re not aware of it happening, our brain’s are working to confirm the things that we already believe.
For example, if you think that I am a vain person, your brain will constantly keep track of any evidence of that. Every selfie that I post. Every time you catch me checking myself out in the mirror. Your brain will make a note of that, constantly underlining that early judgment you made. It won’t matter the times that I’m not acting that way. Your brain will discard that material. It’s harmless until you think how you could make a judgment about a whole group of people, like refugees, or Muslims or Mexicans and your brain will cheerfully help you find the evidence for that belief you now hold. You can tell yourself that you’re not racist. It’s just what you noticed. But, is it? Or, are your own biases getting in the way?
If you are honest with yourself, really, truly honest, what are some of the things that you just know that are not backed up by any sort of scientific evidence? Are you clicking share every time you see a meme or a picture with some clever words that back up what you’ve always believed to be true and not stopping to look for the evidence that backs up the presented claims? Do you find that when confronted with an alternate view to the one that you have that you do not allow yourself to even consider the viewpoint? If you’re doing these things (I do them too) think to yourself, what truths am I keeping myself from knowing?
So, why do we do this?
After all, as Jonah Lehrer writes in WIRED, “We’d be a hell of a lot smarter if we weren’t only drawn to evidence that confirms what we already believe.” It’s true. If we weren’t so hell-bent on looking for ways to prove that we’re right, we would be able to see the world around us as it actually is and not how we think it is.
One reason they believe that we do this is because it’s a great way of processing information. We are constantly getting bombarded with information, from our television, from our computers, from our smart phones. The world around us is buzzing with news and if we didn’t have a quick and effective way of dealing with all of that, we would probably lose our minds. I sort of think of myself as a packrat of information and my brain as the tireless organizer. It only keeps the stuff that goes along with what I already believe to be true and ignores the rest of it. It’s like having a spouse or roommate or partner who is constantly going through your stuff and throwing it away and you have so much stuff that you don’t even notice.
Another reason why we might do this is that we don’t actually want to be wrong. We want to feel good about ourselves. We want to feel smart. If we discovered that our truths and beliefs were inaccurate, we wouldn’t like the way that felt. And the higher we valued that truth or belief, the worse we might feel in discovering that we were wrong.
The other day, my son had a cold and I wanted to give him orange juice. My husband said that orange juice wouldn’t be good for him. I looked it up and I saw that he was right but it still took two full days for me to tell him that he had been right about that. Being wrong is the worst.
So, maybe you’re thinking, okay, I can see how maybe I do this from time to time.
How do I stop doing it?
Is there any hope for those of us who wish to shake off our blinders, who want to see the world outside of our own biases? Yes. But like anything worth doing, it’s not going to be easy.
- Be aware of the danger of confirmation bias.
I’ve already helped you with the first one. You’re welcome. This is a classic, “knowing is half the battle” sort of thing.
- Go looking for an argument.
Okay. Settle down. I hope you haven’t just started one on Facebook. What I mean is this: seek out the opposition to what you believe to be true. Get your news from a different source. Get out of your echo chambers. Don’t scroll past all of the articles that conflict what you believe, but read them. Think about them. Sometimes, they will confirm your beliefs. Sometimes, they won’t. That’s okay.
- Consider the source
Are you getting your information from someone who is an expert in their field? A real expert. If you have a problem with your heart you’re going to go to a cardiologist, not an auto mechanic who has beliefs about the human heart (which is that a good prompt for a romance novel or what?). So, if you want to know the truth about vaccines, maybe you shouldn’t get your information from an actress, but maybe a scientist or a doctor. Check to make sure the person presenting the information actually knows what they’re talking about and can back it up with facts.
- Have an open mind
Be open to the idea that something you always believed to be true might not be. It’s not a great feeling. Maybe, you based your whole life on these beliefs. Depending on how long you held those beliefs and how strongly you believed in them, admitting to yourself that they aren’t true can be devastating. It’s worth it. It’s far better to live in reality than to hold stubbornly to untruths.
- Try to enter argument without worrying about winning
I am admittedly terrible at this. But it goes hand in hand with the previous point, argue with an open mind. Allow yourself to consider the other point of view. Remove your ego from the argument. Approaching an argument like you want to learn something, instead of win something is a great way of opening your mind to other viewpoints. And listen, you don’t have to admit that you were wrong. My god, I’m not a monster.
There is still room for beliefs. There is still room for differing opinions. But it should never be more important than facts and reality. You can be conservative and still be right. You can be liberal and still be right. But don’t sacrifice truths for it. Looks things up. Research. Find multiple sources. At the end of the day, you will be smarter for it, more often right, and an easy winner of all of the best Facebook arguments. And take a deep breath, the election will be over soon. Of course, the debates of differing viewpoints will never go away.
If you are interested in reading more about confirmation bias, I recommend these as they were very helpful in writing this post.
- The Reason We Reason
- How Warren Buffett Avoids Getting Trapped by Confirmation Bias
- Five Tips to Avoid Confirmation Bias
- Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet
- What is Confirmation Bias
- Why People “Fly from Facts”
- The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science