Confirmation bias is the tendency of individuals to pay attention to or believe information that confirms the personal values and beliefs they already hold, rather than allowing their beliefs to be changed by new information.
It's a powerful force that many researchers have suggested plays a key role in the persistence of phenomena such as climate doubt. With an overwhelming abundance of evidence pointing to the existence of anthropogenic climate change, for instance, many scientists have questioned why skepticism continues to be pervasive in society. Sociologists have suggested that the reason has to do with the fact that it's difficult to change an individual's worldview simply by presenting new information. Confirmation bias, rather, leads people to seek out evidence -- however small or poorly supported -- that supports their existing personal beliefs.
Seems to be a simple enough explanation. We can all [present company included] insist that we're always objective and always looking at all sides of important issues, but " not really. Human nature is what it is. This is true for conservatives and progressives--denials and finger-pointing duly noted.
For the great majority of issues, questions, and concerns that pop up on our daily radar screens, this psychological short-cut is certainly handy, and rarely a cause of any great trouble in our lives. We all prefer consistency in our lives--no less intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally than in the practical aspects of daily living.
Climate change is certainly one such issue, as was explored in Chelsea Harvey's above-referenced Washington Post article, discussing a research study on the spread of misinformation online. Any number of contentious political/economic/cultural topics likewise fall under that widening umbrella. The report's lead author offered one of the main conclusions validating the impact of confirmation bias as it relates to the spread of climate change denial:
[Now] we have specific evidence of confirmation bias in the sense that once you choose a narrative, the selection criteria is basically confirmation: 'I will choose evidence that coexists with things that I already believe are true.'
There are two clearly distinct, primary viewpoints about our future fossil fuel supply, and each camp no doubt engages in the same practice of seeking information and evidence to support what they are already quite certain of. Doubtful that there are too many on either side of this debate who can honestly make the claim of unbiased assessments. Accordingly, this observation from the referenced report should come as no great surprise:
[T]he diffusion of content generally takes place within clusters of users known as 'echo chambers' -- polarized communities that tend to consume the same types of information. For instance, a person who shares a conspiracy theory online is typically connected to a network of other users who also tend to consume and share the same types of conspiracy theories. This structure tends to keep the same ideas circulating within communities of people who already subscribe to them, a phenomenon that both reinforces the worldview within the community and makes members more resistant to information that doesn't fit with their beliefs.
The challenge is how to get beyond this should-be-obvious truth [applicable every bit as much to most disputed matters of national/international importance]. These efforts certainly solidify our standings within our preferred social/cultural/ideological groups, and offer plenty of reassurances that we're correct in our beliefs and assessments, unlike those others who disagree with our positions.
After all, who among us wants to be wrong about important matters on which we've staked no small amount of credibility?
But what if being wrong about those important matters winds up being the least of our problems?
More to come.
Adapted from a blog post of mine.