How Confirmation Bias Locks People Into a Political Bias Bubble
Republicans and Democrats share one thing in common: They often believe a slanted media simply because it is slanted their way.
“Your assignment was to watch the presidential debate and write two papers. Each paper was to cover the facts without exaggeration, but one paper was to be slanted toward the Democrat nominee and the other slanted toward the Republican.”
The year is 1992 and the debate is between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. As we wait for class to begin, we marvel among ourselves at just how far apart our papers were and how easy it was to slant them one way or another simply by omitting facts or taking quotes out of context. We’re all in our early twenties, and for most of us, this will be the first time we vote in a Presidential election.
Me? I’m not planning on voting for either. My vote will be cast for the Independent, Ross Perot. Not because I think he would make a good (or at least, better) president. No. If I thought he had a shot at actually winning the presidency, my vote would definitely go elsewhere. I’m simply that bright-eyed non-conformist who is voting “against the system.”
In the 27 years since that election, much has changed in my life. I got married. I became a developer. I wrote a book. I became a father. But that assignment has stuck with me. It is extremely easy to slant the news to one side or another. And I find myself always on the lookout for it.
The Psychology of Confirmation Bias
The idea that the news is biased isn’t a big secret. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 45% of Americans believe there is a “great deal” of political bias in the news, and 69% of respondents say that news outlet owners attempting to influence the news is a major problem. Republicans are more likely to say they cannot name an objective news source at 54%, while 44% of Democrats say the same.
But the real problem with the news media playing favorites has to do with confirmation bias, which is also referred to as myside bias or belief bias. This is a psychological term describing how our own views and opinions affect the way we process information. In short, it means we are far more likely to believe facts that support our preconceived opinions and less likely to believe (or even recall) facts that don’t support our beliefs.
“How can they possibility believe that?”
It’s easy to dismiss confirmation bias, but it is actually a quite powerful cognitive hiccup that is waiting in the shadows ready to pounce on any opinion or belief we might hold. Perhaps even more interesting, intelligence has very little to do with it. Highly intelligent people are just as likely as anyone else to fall into the confirmation bias trap.
Have you ever thought about a song from your youth only to find it playing on the radio the next day? It might seem like a coincidence or even fate, but more than likely, you’ve heard that song dozens and even hundreds of times in the past few years. The big difference was you weren’t recently thinking about the song, so it didn’t register.
Confirmation bias can work along similar lines. You believe something, and because of that belief, facts that support it are amplified while facts that do not support it can go unnoticed.
And this doesn’t have to be political in nature. Or even newsworthy. If Bill believes Sally ghosted him, he may interpret a short answer to an unrelated question the next day as proof she is mad at him. Meanwhile, he never noticed the bright-eyed smile she flaunted when he approached.
Confirmation bias works on our held beliefs and opinions. It works with politics, but it also works with our chosen sports teams, our favorite music groups and even our basic outlook on life. A person with poor self-confidence may interpret any frown as a judgement on their self, never mind that the person behind the frown has their own life and problems that probably had more to do with that facial expression. (But it’s all about us, isn’t it?)
And yet while our everyday biases may simply form who we are as a person — Dan likes the Cowboys and thinks Eagles fans are the absolute worse — our political biases can set a framework for how we might be easily manipulated or outright brainwashed.
The Real Danger of Myside Bias and the Confirmation Bias Bubble
“I know they are biased,” my father-in-law says of his favorite news channel. “But they are my kind of biased.”
It is important to remember that confirmation bias has two sides. It may rely on slanted news, but it also relies on the bias itself. A Democrat is going to believe cable news outlets like CNN and MSNBC by virtue of their own bias just as a Republican is going to favor Fox news. It is not just these news outlets doing the brainwashing, people are willingly handing over their brain to be washed.
And it is getting worse.
The simplicity of publishing on the web along with a very low cost of entry has led to a proliferation of “the media.” This creates a confirmation bubble in which even those who profess to read and watch multiple news outlets to ensure what they are getting is the “real” scoop can easily surround themselves with news that is biased towards their own opinions.
And social media helps play into it. Facebook surfaces articles in a person’s news feed based on the articles they interact with (i.e. click on or ‘like’), which tend to be those articles on which they agree. This in turn leads to even more articles of that particular leaning appearing in their feed, giving the appearance that a particular bias dominates the news cycle. And on Twitter, people do this to themselves by following those whose opinion they agree with based on political affiliation, thus getting more articles biased toward that side.
Deep Fakes Will Take Confirmation Bias to Another Level
Politically motivated “fake news” didn’t arrive with social media. In the 90s and early 00s, email chains were a popular way to pass along not-so-truthful bullet points in hopes of confirming the bias of the individual. Heck, if we go back far enough, we’ll no doubt find “Augustus was not a natural born citizen” carved on tables in ancient Rome. It is worse now because it no longer takes people to pass around misinformation. We have bots to do it for us. A “bot,” which is really just a computer running a script, is far more efficient than a human. Not only can it post on Facebook and Twitter faster than us, it’s far cheaper to employ.
But bots are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to spreading a false narrative.
We are on the verge of “deep fakes” becoming so realistic that only a computer could tell the difference. A deep fake is a video that has been altered in a way present false information. Think President Obama saying, “I was always a Muslim and those American fools bought it hook, line and sinker!” Now think about a video where no amount of scrutiny by human eyes can discern whether or not he really said it.
It is hard enough to fight the misinformation when it is in print. The Obama isn’t a citizen and Obama is a Muslim campaigns were so successful that many people still insist they are true. Can you imagine how hard it will be to fight when there is video “proof”?
The Only Way to Eliminate Confirmation Bias Is to Fight Against Bias
“I’m not anxious. Anxiety is simply a feeling I am having at this moment.”
This simple mantra derived from the writings of Anthony De Mello can apply to many different negative feelings, but the basic idea behind it is quite powerful. When you identify with something — especially when you label yourself with it — it becomes almost too powerful to defeat.
Once you have tabled yourself as “democrat” or “liberal” or “republican” or “conservative,” the ball game is essentially over. You cannot defeat confirmation bias while being biased no matter how much you read multiple sources (which may just form a confirmation bubble) or “the other side” (whose facts you will either believe are tainted or simply won’t recall in the future).
The idea that you can be smart enough to overcome it ignores the fact that intelligent people are just as likely as anyone else to fall for it, and perhaps, even more likely. Intelligent people may be overly confident about their opinions, and thus may not recognize their own biases as easily. In fact, the very idea that you could fight against confirmation bias it while maintaining your own bias is — in itself — a form of confirmation bias. You believe you can overcome it because you are biased towards overcoming it. (Or, put more bluntly, you are hellbent on keeping your own bias.)
“I know, but they are slanted my way…”
Perhaps it is this belief in a black-and-white world where one side is “right” and one side is “wrong” that deserves much of the blame. We do not live in a black-and-white world. Our world is gray, and the right solution to any given problem in our society is often one that balances the various sides rather than the solution that picks a side.
I often see Independents dismissed as being ambivalent to politics or not having strong opinions on the issue. This is not the case at all. Most Independents have simply found that they agree with one side on some things and the other side on other issues. Believe it or not, it is quite possible to be pro-environment and pro-life or to be for small government while still being for safety-net entitlements.
But even being an Independent — although perhaps a step in the right direction — is not a shield against confirmation bias. If you believe that Democrats are right about certain issues and Republicans are right about other issues, you are simply dividing your biases in terms of the issues.
The only shield against confirmation bias is to constantly fight against you own bias. You must realize that both Democrats and Republicans (and Green Party and Libertarians and so on) can be either right or wrong about any given issue. The devil really is in the details.
The Gospel According to…
HELPED are those who are enemies of their own racism; they shall live in harmony with the citizens of this world, and not with those of their ancestors, which has passed away, and which they shall never see again.
Alice Walker’s quote from The Gospel According to Shug is a favorite of my wife’s, but if I were to put my own spin on it, I would say, “HELPED are those who are enemies of their own bias…”
If you are the enemy of your own bias, you will be the enemy of your racism. And your sexism. And your homo(+)phobia. You will also be the enemy of political bias. And national origin bias. And the so many other biases that affect us in a negative way.
I can’t say that you will be able to live in harmony with the citizens of the world if you are an enemy to your own bias. In fact, you may feel more like you are living in a weird version of the movie They Live, with signs of confirmation bias lighting up all around you while others walk through life unawares.
Such is the cost. The word “lemmings” comes to mind a lot. There’s a fascination with how people will simply believe what they are told and pass around the most inane memes on Facebook. You will start to look at both sides and realize how similar they really are to each other.
But you can admire and respect John McCain just as he admired and respected President Obama. And you can believe both Mitt Romney and Joe Biden want the best for America and Americans even if you don’t believe every (or even most) politicians feel the same.
Most of all, you can stop believing one side wants to “destroy America,” whether that so-called destruction comes at the hands of the ultra-rich who want to hoard all of America’s treasures with a Scrooge-like lack of empathy for those less fortunate or it comes from an army of socialists that want to take all of the guns and tear down the walls of Wall Street with their fellow comrades.
Spoiler alert: Both sides want what is best for America.
Neither side is right. Neither is wrong. The only real enemy is the animosity that some feel so strongly about the other side.
If only they were the enemy of their own bias, they might find out how much they are the same.