Does this sound familiar?
On Facebook or another chosen social media site, you see a friend’s post that has a link to The National Review with the title “FBI Rewrites Federal Law to Let Hillary off the Hook,” while a few scrolls later, another post from a different friend shares the article from the New York Times with the headline “House Benghazi Report Finds No New Evidence of Wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.” You like and respect both friends and find yourself wondering which of them could possibly be correct. Or perhaps your reaction is something along the lines of immediately agreeing with one friend while blocking all posts from the other.
This, of course, isn’t only about the preferences of friends—it also reflects the media’s and news source’s predilections. But the crucial aspect is that this inconsistency nods to an overall confirmation bias that news sources set out to fill.
In 2009, researchers from four universities came together for a study entitled “Feeling Validated Versus Being Correct: A Meta-Analysis of Selective Exposure to Information,” which outlines how people seek out exposure to only the information that will validate their personal biases. In fact, the study of about 8,000 participants found a tendency to seek out information that confirms existing beliefs twice as much as they would research information that challenges those beliefs.
Of course, social media networks such as Facebook provide the perfect forum for confirmation biases to run rampant. Studies have shown that people often stick to friends and sources who not only share the same beliefs but who confirm or reinforce those beliefs. On top of this, there are algorithms in place to exacerbate the filter bubble that exposes users to articles and other information formulated to those users’ specific tastes and interests. This filter bubble allows us to keep ourselves surrounded by only ideas that support our own views, keeping us from challenging ourselves and thinking critically on a variety of issues. A confirmation bias, then, refers to the tendency almost all of us have to interpret new information to conform with the beliefs we already have in place. This is a human trait that even scientists have to deal with—fitting results into a preconceived hypothesis.
There are ways for us to get around our confirmation biases.
First, try to view your own beliefs as an outsider might. What might be scrutinized? What holds up to that scrutiny? Using a healthy dose of skepticism and humility, question whether you believe in something because it represents your core values, or because you value the source, or because you fear an alternative, unknown or otherwise.
A theme I often return to is empathy. Elie Wiesel gave a commencement speech at Washington University in St. Louis in 2011 in which he celebrated diversity and otherness, saying, “We are not alone in this world […] We are here to be together with others, and I insist on the others — which means, in some places, in some groups, they are suspicious of the other. I see the otherness of the other, which appeals to me. In fact it is the otherness of the other that makes me who I am.”
This fear or distrust of “otherness” is what often leads people to retreat to their filter bubble. People on either side of the political spectrum can easily place broad labels on the opposite side that speak to this fear and heighten it, meanwhile retreating into the comfort of confirming information and remaining tucked “safely” within that bubble.
It is important to understand that just as your beliefs are real to you, so are the beliefs of others real to them. And people—as individuals and within a community—generally have reasons for their beliefs. You may vehemently disagree with them, but that won’t erase the realness of their perspective. Therefore, thoughtful engagement is the key to mending such rifts in views, at least to humanize the opposition. It’s not always easy, and it’s not a cure-all. You may still pick up a newspaper article and feel angry or incredulous. But once those feelings settle, take a moment to shift your perspective and imagine yourself as someone who supports that viewpoint. What is the other side responding to in the passages? From there, try to empathize with that belief system, even if you cannot agree with it. We are, after all, a nation filled with otherness—the multitude of our viewpoints alone is proof of that. The point isn’t for one viewpoint to “win” over another—this isn’t a zero-sum game. We have to live with each other, and the most efficient way to do that with some form of harmony is through understanding and empathy—sometimes it takes negotiating and compromise and stepping out a bit into the unknown. Maybe you’ll discover something new about yourself along the way.
To discuss stress, empathy, or to get help breaking down your own confirmation bias, contact me at Stephen@PfeifferPhD.com or visit my website at www.pfeifferphd.com.