Tell Me What I Already Know (and then a little more)
I rely on the New York Times for keeping me up to date on what is happening in the world (and in sports). I take my daily laptop dose with a strong cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal. I’m not a systematic reader, but a skimmer and toe-dipper. The headlines are often enough, and sometimes almost more than I can take. I have also come to value the Times’ editorial and op-ed writers who offer well-informed and insightful views on world affairs and even life.
But what is the difference between ‘well-informed and insightful’ and ‘basically agrees with my position’? Researchers report that we human beings have a natural tendency to seek out information that confirms our preconceived position. This pattern of perceiving the world is called the ‘confirmation bias.’ We filter and remember information in ways that support what we already know. Both consciously and unconsciously, we scan the overwhelming amount of data that comes to our senses for bits that reinforce our pre-existing map of the world. When there is dissonance, our inclination is to ignore or dismiss the offending information and go about our merry way. We’re also good at interpreting whatever data we do receive, in a manner that supports our pre-existing condition.
This tendency to see the world from a particular point of view and to seek information that bolsters our position is not something that can be fixed. Paying closer attention or simply being aware of the problem is not enough to change this mechanism of perception. Confirmation bias is simply part of the way our minds construct reality. We can’t change it, but we can be aware of it and put ourselves in positions to consciously let in that which feels foreign and uncomfortable.
The election results were a shock to my assumptions about our country and about acceptable behavior in the public space. (Here, in an act of self-management, I will avoid arousing and rehashing my rage at our President-elect’s disrespect of the common decencies of civil interaction—but just barely.) Hearing from people who share my world-view and also suggest new perspectives is helpful as I begin to reconstruct my mental maps in a way that reflects this new reality.