Overcoming Confirmation Bias

As more and more information becomes increasingly accessible, our attention spans grow ever shorter. Several decades ago, one needed only to turn to the newspaper, radio, or television for all the news someone else deemed was relevant to you and your life. Now, with the Internet, blogs, email and RSS feeds, we no longer rely on others to decide what information we should be processing, for better and for worse.

If you’ve made it to this sentence, you’ve probably made it farther than 80 percent of those who read the headline. While the merits of a wealth of readily available information are generally obvious (more information means more knowledge, right?), the drawbacks are what I want to discuss.

In a time of polarized politics and extreme views on countless issues ranging from social services to taxation, an overabundance of information may actually be detrimental to our search for answers. None of us has the time nor the energy (nor the desire) to process all the information available to us, so we must instead choose what information we access. The problem with giving us that choice is that we will engage in what psychologists call confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek information that confirms one’s already-held beliefs (and consequently to discount or ignore any information that conflicts with those preconceptions). Liberals and conservatives alike are guilty of it, and I believe it is part of what is dividing our nation.

So the question remains: What can we do about it? That psychologists have observed and named this behavior does not bring us any closer to a solution. The answer lies in first recognizing that we have this bias and then in desiring to overcome it. Not easy. If you are willing to try, then here are a few pointers:

  • If you regularly read blogs for news and opinions, add one or two that comes from a different perspective. Not a radically different one (as that will likely make you even more staunch in your position), but one that offers views you might normally dismiss or not consider.
  • Reflect. Most of the political issues that are most controversial have no easy, black-and-white answer. Ask yourself why someone would hold an opinion adverse to your own. Why would some people dedicate their lives and careers to trying to have same-sex marriages recognized? Why would corporate executives seek to defend their earnings against redistribution by the government?
  • Spend time with people whose views you disagree, but whose company you don’t mind. Mere exposure to someone whose views differ from your own can help both of you understand the other’s position, even if your fundamental views don’t change.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” At the risk of sounding cheesy and cliché, I urge all of us to set aside our differences and our self-interests. Stop reading headlines that make you say “Right on!” or “Bullsh!t,” and instead read articles that make you say “Hmm.” Our country will thank you.