Aug 25 2009
A recent study out of the University of Buffalo has clearly revealed that the confirmation bias influences human cognitive habits in many areas of life. (Nearly all?) In their study, researchers looked into political beliefs and how even outright bogus ones can be easily supported.
Briefly, the confirmation bias consists of of the tendency to notice events and information that confirm your belief coupled with the failure to acknowledge events and information that could challenge and disconfirm your belief. In the article, Study Demonstrates How We Support Our False Beliefs, co-author Steven Hoffman says,
“Our data shows substantial support for a cognitive theory known as ‘motivated reasoning,’ which suggests that rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.
“In fact,” he says, “for the most part people completely ignore contrary information.”
Bingo, the confirmation bias in action. In this case, the belief in question was the bogus link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
A couple points in the article deserve to be highlighted. First, Hoffman says,
“The argument here is that people get deeply attached to their beliefs.”
How often has it been a public relations problem that scientists are seen as coldly aloof, residing in their ivory towers of frigid facts? How often in public debates do the advocates of nonsense come across as more passionate, hence persuasive? And yet it is she who lacks deep attachments who should be trusted more.
Second, and in a related fashion, personal investment in a belief makes it much more difficult to move beyond.
“We refer to this as ‘inferred justification,’” says Hoffman “because for these voters, the sheer fact that we were engaged in war led to a post-hoc search for a justification for that war.
I wonder if it is more difficult for active members of churches to jettison their belief, for they have spent so much time and energy and perhaps money that they would prefer their thinking and action not stand on a questionable foundation. And so they buttress it with justifications and rationalizations.
Or so I think. But I could be wrong. I await further educational experiences, whether or not they confirm or disconfirm my present thinking.