Here’s the thing: You’re wrong.
You are undeniably, absolutely, most definitely wrong, and you are wrong about a whole litany of ideas, issues, opinions and beliefs.
And here’s the other thing: you don’t know what you’re wrong about. Neither do I. I don’t know what you’re wrong about, and I don’t know what I’m wrong about. But I know I’m wrong, and I know you’re wrong, and I know that we’re both wrong about a whole lot.
How do I know that both you and I are definitely wrong? The answer: Confirmation bias.
Have you heard of this? It is a demonstrable psychological condition in our human brains. We selectively choose to focus on evidence that supports the views that we already hold, and we ignore evidence that contradicts those views. It’s a curious thing, confirmation bias. And it all happens, of course, without us realizing that we’re doing it.
This is something humans have noticed anecdotally about each other for a long time. Here is the ancient Greek historian Thucydides (circa 400 BCE), on the subject,
“...it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.”
Other notable thinkers commenting on this phenomenon include Dante, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon and Leo Tolstoy.
Upon our hearing a news story, theory, or claim, the modern-day social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains confirmation bias by making a distinction between two reactions we might have: “Can I believe it?” or “Must I believe it?”
If we want to believe something is true, in other words, if the new claim or belief meshes well with all my current beliefs, I will look for any piece of evidence that allows me to believe the new claim. If it does not, I will search for any bit of evidence that allows me to disbelieve it. Throw a smartphone into the mix, with instant access via web search to all kinds of news articles, blog posts, and websites, with any number of opposing views, and with widely varying levels of journalistic integrity, and you’ve got most of the ingredients necessary for full-scale cultural polarization. Which is, of course, where we find ourselves today.
What’s to be done about this? Obviously, I have a few ideas, and we explore them once per week on the Depolarize! Podcast. But to begin with: try and catch yourself in the act of confirmation bias. It’s easier than you think, and here is an exercise: The next time you see a news headline that criticizes a leader or a political party that you align with, take notice whether or not you click on that link. Chances are, you won’t click on it, and when that happens, you will realize that confirmation bias affects you, too. If you’re really interested, you should pick up Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. It has changed the way I see my own opinions and beliefs, both political and apolitical.
Finally, cut yourself a little slack. One of my favorite lines in the film The Big Lebowski is, “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an a**hole.” For most of us, the truth might be the opposite: We’re not a**holes, we’re just wrong.