Confirmation bias is human, but is it humanist?
04 Dec 2019
This article is part of a series written by guest contributors exploring how to incorporate humanist values into their everyday lives. The opinions expressed in this article may not necessarily express those of Foundation Beyond Belief, its staff, or donors.
I start nearly every weekday morning the same way. I drink hot tea, eat peanut butter toast, and:
- Listen to NPR News
- Scan headlines online from NBC News and the Washington Post
- Read my hometown newspaper, the Houston Chronicle
- Watch highlights from the previous evening’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Media Bias/Fact Check rates my go-to news outlets as having a slight-to-moderate liberal bias. Colbert is a self-proclaimed liberal.
By 8:30 a.m., I’ve watched, read, listened, and clicked my way into confirmation bias bliss. It feels great. Colbert has vanquished Trump yet again. I’ve connected with my tribe. My world view is confirmed.
Don’t make me think
In short, I’ve acted human. “At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs,” said Mark Whitmore, Ph.D., assistant professor of management and information systems at Kent State University, at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2018.
I congratulate myself for choosing media outlets that rate high for factual reporting. I may be exposing myself to biases, but at least I’m not falling for fake news. Yay, me! So, why can’t I get the phrase “pompous ass” out of my head?
It’s those pesky humanist values I aspire to. The American Humanist Association’s Center for Education has proposed 10 commitments for humanists. Kristin Wintermute wrote about them recently in The Humanist Magazine, which, incidentally, gets a “least-biased” rating from Media Bias/Fact Check.
While confirmation bias isn’t denounced specifically in the 10 commitments, I give it partial “credit” for my shortcomings on the humanist commitments to humility, empathy and altruism. I’m set in my media ways. I don’t often expose myself to or seriously consider conservative viewpoints. I tend to choose friends who think as I do politically. Those habits don’t exactly foster open-mindedness and personal growth.
Food for prejudices and paranoias
“Confirmation bias tips reason out of the mind and then feeds on our prejudices and paranoias,” wrote science journalist Clay Farris Naff in his article “Can Humanism Overcome Hate?” in The Humanist. Naff looked at the work of interdisciplinary social scientist James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, who conducted research with medical imaging specialists into what happens to brain activity when people think about politics. Naff concludes that “most people react to national political issues by turning off the moral reasoning networks of their brains.”
Well, that explains a lot. Mark Whitmore at Kent State wouldn’t be surprised. “In fact,” he told the APA gathering, “one could say the brain is hardwired to accept, reject, misremember, or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.”
Where does that leave me?
Well, the new year is looming. It’s time for a few resolutions. Here are mine:
1. Read a book on critical thinking, even though I know it will make my head hurt.
2. Recognize the biases of the media I consume. I’m an NPR news junkie, but there are times I hear a tone of voice or word choice that sounds loaded with bias.
3. Expand my media choices, especially to those rated less biased.
4. Consume and support (pay for) media that promotes balanced reporting and humanist values.
5. Recognize clickbait. Ignore it.
6. Engage with conservative friends and relatives more openly.
7. Be more thoughtful about the causes and candidates I choose to support. Then do more to support them.
I’ve lived through eras fueled by kneejerk conservatism and kneejerk liberalism. In 2020 I’m voting for thoughtful humanism and less confirmation bias. Just don’t ask me to give up Colbert. I’m only human, after all.
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