Charlottesville and Confirmation Bias

Because I’ve previously written about confirmation bias, I was asked by my university’s communication office if I thought it explained anything related to the tragedy in Charlottesville where violence erupted at a march for white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Alt-Right.

Question: Can you better explain what confirmation bias is and provide an example of how it works/happens?

Confirmation bias is hardwired into our brains.  It’s how we think. We look for information that confirms our opinions and discounts the opposition. Most of our thinking and deciding is intuitive, reflective, and emotional. It occurs quickly and unconsciously.  Your rational, self-aware mind—the voice(s) in your head and what is reading these words—spends most of its time justifying your decisions so that you look good to others, attract mates, gain power, and can belong to a support group.  Evolution made us this way.  Ancestors good at confirmation bias survived to pass on their genes, others were shunned and lonely.

Question: Can you explain how it may be helpful or hurtful?

We are hardwired this way so we can make quick decisions: Should I run or fight? Eat this food? Defend my mates?  Analytical, information-heavy, cost-benefit thinking takes too much energy and time.  If we carefully evaluated every situation analytically, we’d be stuck in the thinker’s poise, sitting on a rock, chin in hand, rather than acting on opportunities and risks.  Life would pass us by and we would think ourselves to death.

 Confirmation bias is harmful when change is needed, when our traditional ways of knowing and acting do more harm than good. It supports group think, preaching to the choir, and xenophobia.  It narrows the window of opportunities.  It makes one brittle and resistant to change.

President Trump is a master at it. His first instinct was to not condemn racists, neo-Nazis rioting in Charlottesville over the proposed removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue.  Trump’s been looking for reasons ever sense. Recently he’s argued he wants to conserve history and culture embodied by statues and equated statues of confederate generals to statues of founding fathers, ignoring that many confederate statues were erected not after the Civil War but much later and with racist-tinged justifications, during the rise of segregationist Jim Crow laws and a time of neo-Nazi rallies in New York City’s Madison Square Garden (Cooper).  But these facts don’t matter because alternative facts can be found with a click.  If someone presents a counter argument, it is in our nature to dismiss it.  Trump makes it dangerously easier to dismiss any fact by branding the free press as fake news. 

Question:  Are there ways to make oneself more aware that confirmation bias is happening?

The scientific method works against confirmation bias.  It requires advocates of an idea to be completely transparent about their logic, precedent, data, and method so that others can decide if they would connect the dots the same way and reach the same conclusion.  Because of science we no longer bleed ourselves to cure illness or sacrifice virgins to improve crop yields.   That is, we live better and longer because, in some cases, we’ve been able to break from our tendency to confirm our superstitions. Other methods exist to manage confirmation bias.  I teach professionals how to practice collaborative leadership. These tools help groups of people reason through their prejudices and preconceptions to make difficult decisions about their future.


Question: Are you an expert on confirmation bias or can provide any research links to support your points?

My expertise in this topic comes from practice. I use confirmation bias in most every argument I have with my wife and my friends about life, love, and politics. I cite examples and arguments that make my case.  I practice confirmation bias every time I want to justify an extra glass of wine, skip exercise, or sleep late. I even practiced it while writing this essay (never once googled “evidence against confirmation bias”).  I’m a master.  We all are.

 I most always experience confirmation bias when talking to climate deniers.  I advise not getting into arguments about facts because confirmation bias makes those arguments unwinnable. Instead you need to uncover information the denier finds credible and entice them to interact with it.

I admit confirmation bias is not my area of research, but my scholarship and teaching use it, so I read the literature. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion provides an excellent and accessible synthesis of the limitations of human decision making.





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Hull is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability
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