When my late sister wanted to push my buttons, she would say, “You have very strong opinions.” For decades, this put me in a place where I could not win. I wanted her approval so much that I’d try not to have strong opinions. I’d try not to have any opinions at all. I’d try to figure out exactly where I was wrong, or bad or crazy. I’d try to change who I was, and I’d fail, and therefore feel even worse about myself.
Then one day in my early 40’s it occurred to me that maybe the reason she felt that my opinions were so strong was that they weren’t being changed by her often contradictory ones. I realized that everyone is entitled to an opinion. I express my opinions, yes, but I never insist that the rest of the world agree with me. In fact, I find that in general I’m not particularly persuasive. I finally said to my sister, “Yeah, but as long as I’m not forcing those opinions on you, what difference does it make?” And just like that, after decades of what felt like pure torture to me, that particular button was never pushed again.
Opinions. Everybody’s got ‘em.
Just recently, in my internet wanderings, I was introduced to a concept called confirmation bias. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:
“Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. For example, in reading about current political issues, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.”
I suppose I always knew that confirmation bias existed, but I never knew it had a name or that so many studies have been done about it. I’m willing to concede that every one of us is guilty of confirmation bias, but here’s where it gets dangerous: people in the throes of confirmation bias can make bad investments, poor choices, or break laws. Have you ever said, “It seemed like a good idea at the time…”
Economies have been destroyed and wars have been waged by people influenced by their own confirmation bias. It is why the concept of bloodletting persisted for 2,000 years, and why there are still people, even today, who think the world is flat, and that man has never walked on the moon. Confirmation bias is the bedrock of every cult and lunatic fringe militia on the face of the earth.
Unfortunately, it’s also a major factor in many forms of mental illness. Depressed? It will be so much easier to believe the negative things said about you, your circumstances, or the world in general, thanks to your old friend confirmation bias. Schizophrenic? It’s not that hard to find people who agree with the voices in your head. Hypochondriac? Someone will gladly confirm your diagnoses for a price, and since they agree with you, they must be more right than those doctors who are telling you that you’re fine. Paranoid? In this information age, when any nut case can have a platform to express his views (including me!), you’re bound to find “evidence” to support your conspiracy theories.
The good news is there are things you can do to reduce your confirmation bias.
- Take the extra time to actually confirm facts. Two of my favorite websites for this are www.snopes.com, and www.factcheck.org.
- Keep an open mind. Allow yourself to hear opposing opinions and ideas, and if they come with a boatload of documentation, you may want to take them seriously. This is called exploratory thought.
- Take pride in being able to say, “I was wrong.” It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to do so.
- Ask yourself if you are rejecting information simply because it doesn’t confirm your belief. Then ask yourself why it’s so important to you to maintain the belief you have.
- Think critically and logically instead of emotionally and aggressively.
- Continually ask yourself, “Is this information a fact, or is it an opinion or a rumor?”
- Try to stay rational and remain calm. If you think there’s some evil international conspiracy at work, and you seem to be the only one privy to it, odds are you have a problem, because a) It’s nearly impossible for more than two people to keep a secret, and b) What are the odds that YOU are the one person on the entire planet to have been given this revelation? I mean, yeah, it could happen, but the odds are heavily stacked against you.
- Apply the principle of Occam’s Razor. The simplest theory, the one that requires the least amount of assumptions, is often the correct one. For example, unless you live in Africa, if you see hoof prints, think horses, not zebras.
- Think for yourself. If the evidence before you is that the emperor has no clothes, then he’s naked, regardless of what everyone around you is saying. Be careful about this, though. Make sure you’re drawing your conclusions from facts, not simply from a strong desire to see the emperor naked.
Of course, all of this is my opinion. Feel free to decide for yourself.