Some thoughts on confirmation bias

I just emailed this to the students in my media writing class

I wanted to share some thoughts about this week’s election. As you’ll recall, one of the quiz questions was to identify an example of confirmation bias in your social media feeds. But it’s a lot easier and less painful to find confirmation bias in others than it is to see in yourself. If nothing else, the election outcome is a teachable moment on confirmation bias.

A column by Washington Post Media Columnist Margaret Sullivan is a must read. Here’s an excerpt:

To put it bluntly, the media missed the story. In the end, a huge number of American voters wanted something different. And although these voters shouted and screamed it, most journalists just weren’t listening. They didn’t get it.

Granted, a Trump victory was always highly unlikely. Even Trump’s own campaign gave him only a 30% chance on the eve of the election. It still looks like Clinton will narrowly come out on top in the popular vote.

But the signs that he *could* definitely win were always there. It was close leading up to election day. And it turns out, some crucial state polls were off, including Wisconsin. Journalists, pundits, experts and many others like myself dismissed this outcome as implausible.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Social media echo chambers, hyperpartisan fake news, faulty assumptions, headlines with hyperbole, lack of context and caricaturing the other side made this an election where confirmation bias had the opportunity to run rampant.

For myself, it’s a good opportunity to look in the mirror, read Chuck Klosterman’s “But what if we’re wrong?,” question my assumptions and remind myself of what I wrote in our chapter on trust and credibility:

All humans have an ingrained confirmation bias. That is, we tend to seek out and listen to information that confirms our existing worldview. We also tend to discredit or ignore information that refutes, complicates or paints a more nuanced portrait of the simplified narrative we carry in our heads. There’s a beneficial evolutionary reason for confirmation bias. It’s easier to go through life with certainty that it is to be paralyzed by doubt and confusion. But if you’re seeking fairness and truth, you have to look at the whole picture, which can sometimes be more messy and complex than it appears on the surface.

The thing about confirmation bias is it will never go away. But you can start to mitigate it by being aware of its presence. That’s under your control.

Whatever you think of Tuesday’s outcome, I hope you’ll join me and try to do just that.

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