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  • Reverend James Squire

Confirmation Bias

I believe that if all of us saw ourselves as having antennas taking in information, we may be able to understand why some people are echoing the big lie and cheering when President Biden did not reach his vaccination goal. None of these things make much sense! The standard response is, “I just don’t get it.” Understanding is necessary in order for us to at least move forward.

Perhaps we can get a clue from a psychological process and from the words of the French thinker, Voltaire. Voltaire who was part of the French Enlightenment made the point that “Illusion is the first of all pleasures.”

Confirmation bias can become pleasurable when we surround ourselves with people who prop us up with the same ideas that we have. The antennas go out to have everyone agree with us. We look for bias that is going to promote the same ideas and perspective that we have. The famous words that “confirmation bias makes well intentioned people, better and bad intention worse” are true as there are no checks to provide balance.

We have silos of information received from the world around us from the media. Fox News confirms everything that Trump says, and CNN counters everything that is on Fox News.

This is not new. From the moment that Trump took office to this very day, he mastered the art of illusion and confirmation bias. It all started with his choices for various positions in his administration. His appointments were like people going around and around in a revolving door. If people did not agree with him, they were shown the door.

But here is the problem. He chose people who didn’t challenge him, agreed with his every move, and confirmed everything that he did. You will recall when he first entered office that he had a cabinet meeting that was streamed. He called on people around the room. They flattered him and thanked him for a privilege of lifetime to be of service to him. No one mentioned “service to the nation.” That is what started the dynamic of what we are currently experiencing as we make and feel the statement, “I just don’t get it.”

Let’s contrast this with Abraham Lincoln who by most accounts is viewed as the greatest president in our history. Why do you think this is so? Yes, he freed the slaves and was Commander in Chief during the Civil War, but I think that he was the greatest for another reason. Lincoln couldn’t stand confirmation bias. For him, it was no way to govern.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, A Team of Rivals, captured the diversity of opinion of those who Lincoln put in key positions in his administration. Nothing is gained when no one is challenging us. Trump is a cautionary tale of what can happen if you don’t take Lincoln’s approach.

Voltaire had it right. Illusion is a pleasure. When the Insurrection was occurring Trump reportedly rejoiced in the events. He felt that it could possibly create the illusion that the election was stolen.

There is a way to counter confirmation bias. You can learn how to do this by watching a high school debate. I have been to many of them over the years. Students are informed about whether they will be the pro or con regarding a particular topic. I knew a lot of the students’ predilections regarding certain topics that they felt very strongly about, but were assigned to be against topics that they would have preferred to have the pro side of the argument. You won the debate by the strength of your argument not necessarily in agreement with your personal view.

The best way to cut through confirmation bias therefore is to take up the issues that would prove you wrong.

I did get the feeling of what it was like to be in Lincoln’s cabinet. One of my friends is Dr. Linwood Urban, former Chair of the Religion Department at Swarthmore College. When we were discussing/debating an issue, he would simply say, “Jim, use this issue as what is wrong with my point of view. He was not interested in winning the debate with me. He was more interested in removing confirmation bias. We made suggestions to one another.

Surrounding yourself with a diverse set of people who could make a case for what you may be doing wrong can help you make a clearer choice for the right. In fact, what it did for Lincoln was make him the GOAT, the greatest of all time.

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