Confirmation Bias

“Good sense is the most evenly distributed commodity in the world, for each of us considers himself to be so well endowed therewith that even those who are the most difficult to please in all other matters are not wont to desire more of it than they have.” Discourse on Method,  Rene Descartes

Surveys taken during the mercifully terminated election cycle concluded that fifty nine percent of us believe the economy is getting worse, sixty four percent are convinced the American Dream of working hard and getting ahead is dead, and for eighty nine percent of us, at least once a week something in the news makes us truly angry. Yet the overall unemployment (those without jobs who want them and those who have given up looking) stands at 9.5%, down from 17.1% during the depths of the Great Recession. Inflation adjusted median income (not average, so it is not skewed by the ultra large and small) has fallen to $56,516 from its peak in 2000 of $57,909, and is up substantially from 1985, when we got along with less ($48,720).  By inflation adjusted, we mean the annual income is stated as if costs had remained par with the beginning of the tracking, so that the numbers reflect a true increase in median buying power. While a slight decrease in sixteen years is not good, neither is it disaster: we have stayed about even with increasing costs, and greatly improved our situation in the last thirty years.

Just a few more statistics.  Please keep your eyes from glazing over if you can.  The middle class has shrunk from 59% to 50% from 1981 until 2015 (oh my, the middle class is dying).  Are the inhabitants of the lost nine percent living under bridges and rummaging in dumpsters as the twenty-four-hour news cycle may have you believing? The reality is a bit different. Although the so called lower middle class has grown from 26% to 29%,  the higher income upper class has grown from 15% to 21%. The rich have gotten richer, and there are more poor, but again the news is mixed. Two thirds of the diminishing middle class moved up a notch, while one third went backwards. Not that statistics make those who have fallen behind feel any better (perhaps even worse), but as John Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things.”

Difficult challenges remain ahead: promised benefits to those who contributed much for their whole working lives like Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy, and while annual deficits began to diminish, overall national debt has doubled yet again in the last eight years to a daunting $18 trillion. Undocumented immigrant workers must be resolved; they came here illegally, but without them not much would be constructed, mowed, cleaned or harvested. An implacable murderous cadre derived from a worldwide huge, heretical sect that preaches conversion by the sword and a brutal unforgiving sharia law enforced to the death. Radical Islam wants us dead. The political courage and will to fix these has not been apparent of late, but that does not preclude the rise of necessary leadership and the willing compromises of the rest of us from remedies.  However, our immediate prospects are not as dire as most believe.

So why are we so angry and depressed as a culture? So divided? So unwilling to participate in reasonable problem solving and positive communication? And so entrenched in shouting across an unbridged chasm with vitriol, condemnation and accusations of stupidity expressed as superficially clever bumper sticker slogans and insulting memes? Neither side of the chasm is guiltless in this regard as we all Facebook and Twitter away, while congratulating our associated true believers with “Likes,” laughing emoticons and clichéd internet shorthand acronyms.

“A nation divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln

franklin-jefferson-adamsToo many aspects of this destructive phenomenon to explore in a blog post, but we can look at one: what the shrinks call “confirmation bias “– that damnable tendency to filter new information per our preconceived ideas.  We believe readily everything negative about those whom we judge harshly and remain resolutely tone deaf to everything negative on our side of the big chasm. The converse also applies: we believe nothing positive of the devils on the other side and every scintilla of remotely encouraging news about our guy (or girl).

 In short we believe ourselves to be right (or else why would we believe it?), but we lose our way and become mired in the sludge of our willingness to demean those with whom we disagree. They are morons, evil and better off dead. We not only disagree, we condemn in the basest terms possible.  If Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who disagreed on many issues about the structure of a new nation, had not worked so very hard to overcome profound differences, we might still be singing “God Save the Queen.”

Why can’t we sit down with a cup of coffee or an adult beverage or break some bread, put on our big boy pants as Tom Hanks recently suggested and be willing to engage in rational polite discussion to present and defend our side and to listen in good faith to those with whom we differ?  No vitriol, no accusations of imbecility or demonic possession, just a conversation. Maybe we can all expand our little gray cells and comprehension, and while we may not end up in agreement in every regard, there is a chance we can understand the other a bit better. In that we may begin to forge a way ahead we can all live with.  To yell from the sidelines and hope our leaders of one stripe or another fail us once again is like hoping the driver of the bus we are all on drives off a cliff. Can we leave behind our compulsion to please our likeminded fellows, and stop poisoning political speech? Perhaps we can find both useful discourse and real solutions.

“Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.” Aristotle


Filed under Culture views, Politics and government

3 responses to “Confirmation Bias

  1. My degrees were not in sociology so I do not know the correct terms but I do know a lot about societies because I have been involved in them all my life. I can say that what happened in the last election is people who have worked for 30 years expiriencing something that happens to working guys of this age. They get awfully tired of their job. They remember how exciting life was back when they were in the army (navy). They enter a second youth. They say, “Hey, let’s do something daring.” So they elect Donald J. Trump. Why doesn’t this happen in every election? Because a Trump type hasn’t come along. How will their decision work out? There is only one answer. We’ll have to wait and see. In French: “On va voir”.


  2. Anthony Vinson

    Confirmation bias and the fundamental attribution error drive a great deal of the angry rhetoric. Of course that’s an oversimplification, but hey, you gotta start somewhere. The only way to avoid falling under the spell of both or either is constant vigilance, a thing not too easily achieved. (Trust me – I know.) Of course this is nothing new. Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published in 1841, is every bit as relevant today as it was 175 years ago.

    Here’s a blog post I published the Friday following the election. While I continue to feel this is the right course, I am beginning to wonder how much longer I can hold out… Oh, language warning – It’s how I express myself.

    Okay. I have waited a couple of days to allow everyone to get their brains untangled. Now it’s time to talk.

    Donald Trump will be our 45th President. He was elected by the rules. He won. It isn’t necessary that we like it, only that we accept it. Deal with it. Only then can we get on with the business at hand. To wit

    Enough whining about the Electoral College. It is embedded in the constitution and has determined our presidential elections since the beginning. Until it is repealed or replaced it is the law of the land. But frankly, it serves a fairly important purpose in our republic and I am not so certain we should toss it to the wayside. Besides, had it fallen in Hillary’s favor you’d be singing its praises.

    Do not argue with, taunt, or otherwise rankle Trump supporters even when they behave like assholes. Their opinions, while opposed to your own, are valid. They came by them organically. They believe. They want the same thing we all do: a country that reflects their own personal values. Supporting Trump does not make them stupid, racist, or ignorant. Some of them may well be, but then so are some of us. And some of us sometimes behave like assholes. Look around if you doubt me. But hey, you know it’s true.

    Enough of this “Not my president” horseshit. You may not like your boss at work. He or she may be an asshole. But when was the last time you stood up on your desk and shouted, “Not my boss!’ Now here is where the analogy turns: Trump works for us. That’s right; the Constitution was designed so that we the people are in charge. The Constitution was designed with checks and balances to limit the power of any one of the three branches of the federal government. Let’s do our part as individuals to make sure they work as intended.

    Do not give up or give in. We will do this all again in four years. In the meantime there will be local, state, and federal elections. Half of all senators and congresspersons will be up for reelection in two years. You want term limits? Then let’s start limiting the terms of some of these motherfuckers next
    chance we get.

    Instead of binge watching “Basket of Deplorables” on Netflix, compose a reasoned, impassioned email to your congressperson and senator. Tell them you are watching. Tell them that you are paying attention. Tell them that you vote. If you are willing, and if it is not a hollow threat, tell them that you will volunteer to assist their opponent during the next election. Be polite but firm. Do this once a month consistently.

    Call their local offices. Speak with a staffer. Tell them how you feel and what you expect from your representative. Be polite but firm. Tell them you are paying attention. Tell them that you vote. Do this once a month consistently.

    I know that many of you are afraid and I understand why. I do not minimize those fears. I ask only this: Let us adopt a watchful but respectful attitude. Let us be responsible citizens and approach a Trump presidency with hope and grace. Let us hold his feet to the fire while simultaneously holding ourselves to a higher standard. Who knows, perhaps President Trump will be our next great leader. Yeah, I know it seems unlikely right now, but as Hillary said during her concession speech, we own him an open mind.

    Thanks, Jack, and keep ’em coming!


    Liked by 1 person

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