I’m struck by how one psychological tendency — confirmation bias — is at the root of all the trends undermining our society. There is a solution: it’s called “farming for dissent.”
Confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” And as humans, we are all subject to it. Seeking out facts that confirm you are making the right decision is natural and feels normal. Searching for evidence that contradicts your belief is unnatural.
But confirmation bias is deadly right now.
If you want to believe that you don’t need a mask and you won’t get sick (“I don’t know anybody who got sick!”), that may feel reassuring. But it won’t keep you safe.
If you want to imagine that climate change isn’t real, you can find plenty of evidence . . . every time it snows.
Confirmation bias is bad enough under normal circumstances. But now that we’re shut up in our houses and sucking up social media that’s carefully designed to reinforce our biases in our own little filter bubbles, it’s worse.
Who convinced the rioters in DC to attack the capitol? They surrounded themselves (virtually, then physically) with people who believed the same distortions that they did. They insulated themselves from facts that contradicted those biases. And then they convinced themselves that of course they were right. Without confirmation bias, there would have been no riot.
Who created the superspreader event that was the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court confirmation event? Who imagined that masks were unnecessary at it? Who was responsible for Donald Trump and so many others getting COVID-19? People who only saw what they wanted to see. Confirmation bias led to those infections.
Do you think QAnon could even exist without confirmation bias? It thrives on selective evidence and rumor. It rejects, ignores, or twists facts that are inconvenient. Confirmation bias is the platform that sustains every conspiracy theory.
It doesn’t help that President Trump is the foremost proponent of confirmation bias. Trump only wants to see evidence that confirms his viewpoint — anyone contradicting it is banned from his presence. Then he spreads whatever rumors he hears that confirm his viewpoint. Confirmation bias is now the watchword of our leader.
And its not just Trump — most politicians operate in a similar way. He’s just made it into an art form.
If we keep believing what we want to believe — instead of what is true — we will make poor choices. And with the issues facing the world right now, that is the last thing we can do.
How to fight confirmation bias
If you only care about feeling good and don’t care about the actual truth, stop reading. I can’t help you. Please say as little as possible to others; you are part of the problem.
If, on the other hand, you would like to make decisions based on actual truth, then you need to adopt habits that support that. That requires work. But it is not impossible.
I do work with Netflix, one of the smartest and most profitable organizations in the world. When they make a decision, they publish the concept on their intranet and actively “farm for dissent” — seek out contradictory viewpoints. This makes their decision-making far stronger.
You can adopt “farming for dissent” in your own life to fight confirmation bias. Here are a few strategies for you:
- Be curious. When you read or hear something that contradicts a cherished belief . . . go towards it, not away from it. Ask “Is this true? What is the evidence?” Then read, or listen. Hold the contradictory idea in your mind, just for a moment. And consider changing your mind. Changing your mind is a sign of intelligence. (Never changing your mind is a sign of ignorance.)
- Consume science. Science is built on challenge — it’s why papers are peer reviewed. Science changes its perspective on things frequently, which bedevils observers, but that’s part of the design. More experiments lead to more facts, more evidence, and eventually, more insight. (That’s how we figured out that bacteria, not stress, causes ulcers, an insight that required doubting conventional wisdom.) Scientific thinking breaks down confirmation bias.
- Embrace diversity. You know who doesn’t believe the same thing that you do? People who don’t look like you do. Talk to somebody whose skin is a different color. If you’re old and experienced, ask questions of somebody who’s young and thinks differently. Make friends with weird accents from other countries. If you’re educated, talk to a laborer . . . and vice versa. If your friends aren’t diverse, your viewpoint is limited.
- Travel. It’s amazing how much you can learn by exposing yourself to other cultures. (You might have to put this one off for a few months.)
- Doubt your beliefs. Could your cherished belief be untrue? Every day, imagine something that you believe — that Jesus is the savior, that welfare creates laziness, that everyone should get a college degree — is completely wrong. Research it. Find out what people who disagree think. You don’t have to change your mind. But you should at least temporarily try on the belief that you might change your mind.
- Be somebody else. Try Indian food. Go to a Dominican heritage festival (later, after everybody has been vaccinated). Hang out with some lesbians. Attend a reggae concert. Go where you are in the minority. When you’re surrounded by a bunch of people who are like each other — but unlike you — you gain empathy for other points of view.
- Befriend an alien. Right now, make friends with someone who disagrees with you. You’ll find out they’re human, and their perspective isn’t as hidebound as you think.
- Diversify your news. Get out of your social media bubble. Read Fox News or MSNBC — whichever seems more out there to you. The objective is not to be won over. It is to see how other people think and get facts access to facts you wouldn’t normally be exposed to.
If we continue to bathe in confirmation bias, we will never learn anything new. No new ideas will emerge. The best ideas are born from seemingly contradictory viewpoints — think thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
So stop stewing in your own juices and expose yourself to things that challenge you. It’s the best way to grow.