Flushing Out the Bias in Confirmation Bias

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Confirmation bias is a phrase that has been become a popular way of challenging people who disagree with us.  It might be used as a shield or a weapon in uncomfortable conversations… you know what I mean.

Once the confirmation bias phrase is deployed, the substance of any conversation is effectively deflected down the rabbit hole of who is or is not personally biased.

The funny thing is – we all have them. Biases I mean. We tend to be very aware of them, but not necessarily in ourselves. Most likely we aware of the biases (or what we think are biases) in others. Perhaps, less stridently, we are aware of our own.

Another funny thing is – when we fling the confirmation basis prospect into a conversation (more subtly in the form of a question), we are guilty of confirmation bias. We are suggesting that the other person is guilty of confirmation bias – and that suggestion is based on a presumption: that the other person is biased!

The more self-aware among us may retreat to the position of perpetual skepticism – that truth is unknowable, and we should not dare try to determine it (lest we be accused or, even worse, be susceptible of, confirmation bias without knowing it). Indeed, I think that is a prevalent posture of the modern intellectual.

My thoughts here are triggered by a conversation recently in which a friend brought up the subject of confirmation bias. I would characterize my friend as a cautious, if not thoughtful, skeptic. He has expressed some discomfort with the subject of religion and ultimate truths, and I do not usually “go there” with him as a result.

But, it got me thinking.

It bears repeating: we all have biases. We all have predispositions to see the world a certain way. Some of us come by this disposition inadvertently, and some come by it purposely. Some come by it honestly, and some come by it less than honestly.

But let’s be honest here: we all have biases, and if we are even more honest, we can all be guilty of confirmation bias at times – which is to seek out and gravitate toward those things that affirm and reaffirm what we already believe to be true.

4587925063_90746379a8_tAt a fundamental level, “Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively.”[1]

But confirmation bias can appear in many forms and in many nuanced ways. For instance, people who like smoking pot, may emphasize the positives and downplay the potential harmful effects of marijuana because of confirmation bias. This might be called positive confirmation bias when we tend to seek affirmation for the things we desire to be true (while ignoring the negative indicators).

In the opposite fashion, a person with low self-esteem may become highly sensitive to signs that people are ignoring them and may tend to interpret ambiguous actions quickly in the negative.  Even neutral behavior may be interpreted negatively by a person who is always suspecting others of slighting them. This might be called negative confirmation bias when we tend to suspect and concede the things we fear.

I am reminded of the current controversy on college campuses over microaggressions.

“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”[2]

Microaggressions, by definition, may be unintentional or unrealized slights. They are magnified to the person who perceives them because of a particular sensitivity. This is very like confirmation bias (if not the same). One of the nuances of microaggressions is that the person perpetrating them may not know or realize the slight.

This is point of course: there are subtle forms of racism that are endemic in fabric of our present society that people do not even realize they have allowed racism to permeate their social relationship. At least this is the theory, and exposing them is meant to bring about societal change, to root out the undercurrents of racism.

Still, it is confirmation bias. In this sense, though, it is self-aware confirmation bias with a purpose. Confirmation bias is the point! It might be used in this way to affect positive change.

Lewes_Guy_Fawkes_Night_Celebrations_(2)_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1570186I will digress to that I don’t think it is always productive, in my opinion.  The present preoccupation with microaggressions on college campuses has skewed the academic environment so much that microaggressions are turning into riotous outbursts and stifling discourse …

… in the very places where discourse should be most robust!

I know I am treading on rocky ground with microaggressions, and it may be upsetting to suggest that microaggressions are a kind of negative confirmation bias, like the person with low self-esteem, but I think there is some truth to the statement.

The present celebration of transgender-ism may, as well, be a demonstration of wishful thinking (positive) confirmation bias. We want people with gender confusion to be happy and feel good about themselves, so we now celebrate Caitlin Jenner and stare down Neanderthals who think separate bathrooms are sacred.

But, what if we are celebrating an illness instead of a virtue? What if we are encouraging people further into the abyss of a harmful self-deception in the process of making ourselves feel good about our own open-mindedness?

Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where sex change surgery was pioneered, believes that we are doing just that.  He came to that conclusion legitimately after being on the front lines of the transgender movement. His own observations and three separate studies over decades  suggest gender-reassignment surgery only covers over a deep-seated disassociation problem that is not being addressed, and continuing to encourage people down this road may harm the people we want to help.[3]

He naturally should have wanted to reach an opposite conclusion, having captained the ship that chartered the new territory. The cutting work work at Johns Hopkins was part of his legacy; and now the fruit of that work is ripe for celebration and enjoyment, but he was open to follow where the facts led.

Nuriddeen Knight, an MA in Psychology, urges a better solution: to help gender disassociated people learn to love themselves as they are, allowing them to define their own sense of the biological gender they were born with.[4] She draws interesting parallels, being a black woman who has experienced similar bigotry and lack of understanding to what transgender people have experienced.

She agrees with Dr. McHugh that we cannot change the biology with a scalpel, so we should find ways of helping them to love themselves and to allow them room to expand the idea of the gender they are instead of celebrating a lie that statistics clearly show is likely to leave them feeling empty and desperately worse.

But I digress again. None of these examples of (possible) confirmation bias are what I really intend to address.

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I have been getting to the point all along, and now I should get there more directly.

We are all biased by the notions that we have developed. We all are tempted to feed ourselves with confirmations of our own biases and to avoid the challenges to them. This is simply to say that we have all developed a construct of the world and tend to see (and want to see) the world through that lens.

Some lenses produce a more accurate picture of the world and the way it works than others, but we all do it. Some lenses are constructed to see the world only as we want to see it (or fear that it is), and others are constructed more honestly (or objectively), but we all have these lenses.

And, there is nothing inherently wrong with that.

I have used examples of confirmation bias that likely do not fit the framework of the winds of modern society in the United States because, in truth, confirmation bias works both ways – like a two-edged sword as they say.

The use of confirmation bias as a weapon in conversation or an argument is counterproductive if the aim is open and honest discourse. We are all biased. So what?!

Let’s talk about it and let iron sharpen iron.

I suspect for many, however, that open and honest discourse is not desired – and to that extent, the use of confirmation bias in a conversation is, itself, confirmation bias! It reflects the presumption (bias) that the person we are addressing is biased, and unreasonably so, justifying (in our minds) the attack.

I should point out also that this is a type of logical fallacy is known as ad hominem, which means that we are attacking the person, rather than the proposition. The fallacy is that, whatever the biases of the person may be, the biases do not affect the truth of the assertion. A bias in favor of truth is both  a bias and  true!

But I digress still again.

1960s style guy posing with circular glasses on vintage wallpaper background.

They say that the best offense is a good defense, and that applies equally well on the football field as in conversation. Raising the confirmation bias flag may be an effective way of avoiding opposing ideas. It can effectively deflect further discussion… protecting one’s own confirmation bias from being exposed or challenged.

In the end of this exercise, I come to this: I promise to think about and confront my own confirmation bias, if you will think about and confront yours. But, let’s not “go there” in our conversations. We can only have an open, honest conversation in which we both give serious consideration to what the other says without “going there”.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] What is Confirmation Bias? Wishful thinking, by Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.

[2] Microaggressions: More than Just Race: Can microagressions be directed at women or gay people? By Derald Wing Sue Ph.D. (Psychology Today Nov. 17, 2010) (as of 2016, we now all know that they can!)

[3] Transgender Surgery Isn’t the Solution: A drastic physical change doesn’t address underlying psycho-social troubles by Paul McHugh (Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2016).

[4] An African-American Woman Reflects on the Transgender Movement, by Nuriddeen Knight (Public Discourse June 4th, 2015)

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