Confirmation Bias

American society is suffering from a bad case of “confirmation bias.”  What is “confirmation bias”?  That is where one selects evidence that agrees with one’s own opinions. That is bad enough, but in our digital world, increasingly, the selection of evidence is being done by media corporate giants. When we “like” some post on Facebook, that “like” goes into an algorithm that creates an individual profile of our purchasing, political, social and racial tendencies.  Decisions based on what sources will be directed toward one’s inbox will be a reflection of the previous choices one has made. Our identity as human beings becomes reduced to the quantifiable decisions we make that show our particular “likes” and “dislikes.” Once a pattern is discerned, media corporations can manipulate those patterns through constant positive reinforcement. We are constantly barraged by examples of people who not not only share our same tendencies, but amplify them.

As one gets steeped in ever more selective information, one is exposed to less and less evidence and argument of other positions. The ability of individuals to interact with those they disagree is limited because there is no common basis on which to start a conversation. If one is subject only to evidence that one is correct, then the opinions of those who disagree must be wrong. We confirm our own beliefs and condemn the other as wrong or evil. In this way, confirmation bias leads away from moderation and compromise, to the assumption of extremist positions.

Our cable, so-called news channels, select the viewers through ideological filters.  They use confirmation bias to make money. Instead of dealing with news, these channels present us with instant opinions concerning an event, according to what the media corporation sees as appealing to its selected ideological demographic.  The “news” network’s business plan is to promote the confirmation bias of a certain ideological audience. That is why in a recent court case, executives and pundits of a network, when forced to testify under oath that they had lied, many of their viewers refused to believe them. It threatened their confirmation bias, in other words, their very understanding of who they are.

When we rely too much on a single source for our information, we are losing our independence as thoughtful, thinking beings. A democratic society depends on people listening and speaking to each other. Those capable of discussion and compromise are liberals and conservatives who fill the moderate center of the political spectrum. Moderates are capable of hearing more that one version of an issue and can see the good, as well as the bad, in the opinions and positions of others. Confirmation bias produces extremists. In history, this is where witch hunters come from. One can be led to believe all sorts of premises about one’s superiority, as well as the inferiority and evil of others.

When a pundit resorts to name calling, hate messages and ridicule instead of discussing an issue, that pundit is serving up confirmation bias. What we need is to listen to a variety of voices to understand any issue. Being inundated by a single source of information, or sources formed by our algorithm profile, leads to extreme positions. Stepping out of our comfort zone and listening to a variety of sources leads to a democratic society, as well as a richer, more comprehensive understanding of our complex society. Instant analysis is an oxymoron. To deal with complex issues, we need time to research background, gather facts and think for ourselves. We do not need media corporate algorithms to manipulate and massage our understanding of who we are and how we relate to our fellow citizens.