Confirmation Bias

I was driving home the other evening with my daughter. I was worn out and emotionally on edge. Life was crashing down hard. Our schedule was hectic and feeling impossible. Our remodeling projects had slowed to a crawl. I had just learned that circumstances were such that I would miss her first ever volleyball tournament. I was still coping with the sudden and unexpected death of a friend at church. I began to sob.

“I’m sorry honey,” I said. “I’m cracking right now.”

She reached over and grabbed my hand. We drove in silence for a few minutes and then, attempting to be helpful, comforting, profound, she began to tell me about a book she had read that had been significant to her. I immediately began to tense, which was not the response she was hoping for.

The problem was that the book is one of those feel-good Christian books that seek to “prove” Christianity and the afterlife through an allegedly true telling of someone’s experiences while in a coma. As a skeptic, I do not typically respond well to such books. The emotional hooks don’t catch me and the holes in the story seem too massive.

I listened to her tell me how the author’s three year old son had been in a coma and been able to tell his parents what they had been doing in a different room while he was not with them. How the boy had spent time with Jesus. How he had, after insisting that many, many drawings of Jesus were not accurate, indicated that one a special needs girl had drawn was. I knew from previous conversations that this book had made a big impact on my daughter. I struggled with whether to respond.

I finally took a deep breath and did so. “How do we know the story is true?”

“Because it’s what his son told him.”

“No. It’s what he says his son told him. What if he’s lying?”

“He’s a preacher!”

“So? There are preachers who lie.”

I tried to present my case without killing her love of the book. The fact is that we, the readers, can’t know whether the story is true. We have to trust the author.

He could be telling the exact truth without error, misrepresentation, or misinterpretation.

He could be telling what he believes to be true but is still not completely accurate.

He could be accurately reporting what his son said, but in collecting the stories from his son, he might have led him in some way that made the story accurately reported but still untrue. Similar to purported psychics who ask leading questions and thus appear to know more than they really do. “Was Mommy knitting while you were in surgery?” That kind of thing.

He could be stretching the truth or outright lying in a laudable but misguided attempt to bring more followers to Christ.

He could be stretching the truth or outright lying in order to make a lot of money in book sales or become more famous.

Any of these are possible. What you think probably depends on how you tend to view this type of literature to begin with. I have other issues with books like this, besides questions of authenticity and accuracy, and I explained them to her, resulting in a lengthy give-and-take discussion.

But that discussion is not what prompted me to write this post so I’ll leave the details out. It’s what happened the next day that truly opened my eyes to a reality that I found truly profound. While surfing Facebook as I delayed facing my day, I saw a link a friend had shared about race. It detailed a black woman’s experience trying to get a job after being laid off. To boil it down simply, she applied through monster.com, which had a diversity questionnaire, identifying her as black or “refusing to answer”. She created a fake white persona with the exact same qualifications as herself. The fictional white person was contacted immediately while the real black person was still greeted with silence. Ultimately, “Bianca” (the white woman) received 12 requests while Yolanda (the black woman) received 2.

I immediately accepted the story as true. It resonated with how I saw the world. People of color suffer discrimination and here was proof. Proof.

Proof?

My words to my daughter the night before came back to me. Challenging me. How do you know this story is true? Look at it. It’s like a blind test. Two identical candidates – the only difference is race. What else could it be? But what if she’s making it all up? Well, why would she lie? Why would the preacher lie?

It hit me initially like a sucker punch and then felt like a major epiphany. I believed this woman’s story because it fit my world view. It confirmed what I felt I already knew. I could believe that a black woman would have this experience and so I accepted the truthfulness of the tale. A person with a different world view might doubt the authenticity of the story. Just like I doubted the preacher who wrote the book about the afterlife while others accepted it.

A friend of mine refers to this as “Confirmation Bias”. We are more likely to believe stories that confirm whatever bias we have. And let’s face it, we all have a bias. As much as I believe this woman’s story, I can’t prove it. (She might be able to with phone records, etc., but I can’t). As much as my daughter believes the author’s story, no one can prove it. The level of proof we require often depends on how inclined we are to believe the story in the first place.

So much of what goes on in public discourse is distorted by our own biases. If you believe that poor people are lazy moochers, then you will notice and believe stories that re-enforce that view and discount those that are sympathetic to their plight. If you believe that corporate CEO’s are greedy money-grabbers, you will see that everywhere you turn and fail to see anything different.

I grow weary of all the liberal-bashing and conservative-bashing online. The fact is, neither side of any discussion is completely wrong or completely right. Both sides have some truth and some value in almost every instance. I can’t make purple with just blue or just red. I have to have a mix of both. Some projects might call for more blue; some might call for more red. As the artist trying to paint the picture, I have to make that call about how much of each I need in order to get the right shade of purple.

Of course, there isn’t an “artist” mixing our policy making or shaping our public discourse. There’s a bunch of red paint insisting the picture should be red and a bunch of blue paint insisting the picture be blue. What we want is almost always going to be purple. But in order to get purple, we have to be willing to listen to each other and consider the possibility of truth from each side and find ways to blend them together.

I don’t know if we can get there. All I know is that I gained awareness when I realized that I accepted some things as truth while discarding others… just like the people I disagree with. I always knew they were doing it. I just hadn’t turned my own questioning on myself.

I’m hoping to retain that awareness moving forward – to continually question what I think I know and to look for truth in what I think is false. It might not change my perspective but it might give me insight into someone else’s, which might just allow us to find common ground. And if enough of us can do that, we might just start working together.

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