Recently, a picture of President Trump arriving home after his rally in Oklahoma circulated online. It showed him disembarking Air Force One, necktie undone, looking disheveled and tired. I couldn’t help but notice two very different narratives surrounding the photo. The first group, the anti-Trumpers, declared him to be in bad health, wore out, unfit for presidency, etc. The second group, the MAGA crowd, expressed gratitude for how hard he is working for America, and how he never stops doing what needs to be done. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the difference and it brought me back to a conversation I had back in April with a friend of ours, who is a psychology professor. I had noticed how people who hate Trump, always find more reasons to hate him, while people who support him, tend to find more things to like about him. I asked my professor friend if this tendency had a name and he directed me to confirmation bias.
Wikipedia defines confirmation bias as: “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms or supports one’s prior personal beliefs or values. It is an important type of cognitive bias that has a significant effect on the proper functioning of society by distorting evidence-based decision-making. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. For example, a person may cherry-pick empirical data that supports one’s belief, ignoring the remainder of the data that is not supportive. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. The effect is strongest for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply entrenched beliefs.”
Fascinating! I don’t know why, but I love learning things like this. It is something I have been wanting to talk to my kids about but hadn’t gotten around to until this week. Interestingly enough, I have been noticing it in almost everyone (myself included) in this recent and ongoing racial tension conversation. Everyone believes that they have come to the most logical conclusion given the information they have been given. We all believe that we are right and, naturally, no one likes to believe that they are wrong. When what we believe to be true is challenged, it actually causes a psychological stress that is called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when “a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; or participates in an action that goes against one of these three, and experiences psychological stress because of that. According to this theory, when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent.”
This might explain the lack of ability to peacefully communicate thoughts, feelings, and questions regarding current world issues, especially since we see that confirmation bias happens even more when the subject matter has strong emotions attached to it. When we want something to be true, we look for information that supports our belief and ignore anything that contradicts it. If someone presents an argument that makes us question our own belief, it makes us uneasy, uncomfortable, and even a bit cranky. With the recent conversation on race, discrimination and white privilege, I have found myself in a state of cognitive dissonance, holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously, unable to decipher truth in the midst of the shaming, guilt and peer pressure. Funny, I thought we all outgrew that at some point. Anyhow, contrary to popular belief, I have spent a lot of time listening to both sides of the argument. I won’t go into where I stand on any of it right now because that is not the point of this blog. My hope is, now that we are aware of the role that confirmation bias plays in our decision-making processes, we can be more careful and intentional about exploring both sides of an argument before coming to any conclusions. If we don’t settle on a belief as soon as we are confronted with an ideology, we won’t be as disappointed when that belief is proven to be less than 100% accurate. Also, did you know it’s possible for there to be some truth on both sides? Not only that, but it is my opinion, that people who can explore and acknowledge both sides to any argument are more intelligent. Again, that is my opinion, but yeah, even if it is only in my own eyes, I’d like to be seen as one of the intelligent ones. So, lets all try to stop saying “I told me so,” and do some homework instead: take a stance that is not your own, whether it’s on President Trump, the lockdown, or white privilege… research it, explore it, contemplate it. Do it to the degree that you could present the argument from the “other” side. Just for the sake of fun. And intelligence. You might be surprised, exploring the other side might open your eyes to things you hadn’t thought of, or it might just create in you a stronger belief in what you already believe to be true, either way: no harm, no foul, right?