If you cross-reference the date on this blog post with world events, you probably know by now that Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear reactor problems are among the day’s top news stories.
Interestingly, as an emergency manager who works in the Pacific Northwest, my office has received a number of calls from people with concerns about the “radiological or nuclear fallout that is poised to descend at any time and wipeout untold millions of adults, children and plant-life.”
In the 5-10 calls I have received today, I have heard an amazing set of stories and connections that very well-meaning people are making. I understand that we all experience some fear of the unknown, but what fascinates me most is that when fear takes over, we sometimes forget to step back and consider the beliefs that we are forming about certain situations.
It is widely recognized that people will more readily seek out information that confirms their fears rather than questions them. This is called “confirmation bias” and it has 4 related effects:
- The preference for early information,
- Illusory association of events,
- Persistence of discredited beliefs, and
- The polarization of opinion.
When confirmation bias is present and a person is unwilling to consider an alternate perspective, it seems the easy route is to stop the discussion, turn the conversation personal or hang up the phone.
In order to combat confirmation bias, there are a few preventative steps that each of us can consider:
- Analyze your beliefs and ideas from a wider point of view.
- Gather as much information as possible. How many sources are you using before your opinion is formed?
- Evaluate the credibility of the information. Do the authors or people you are trusting to formulate key opinions have the subject-matter expertise or are they relying on opinions they have formed themselves?
- Play devil’s advocate and consider the argument from the alternate perspective. If you find yourself getting emotional about taking on the other side of the debate, you might wonder if your opinion is rooted more in fact-based evidence or an emotional understanding of the situation.
Perhaps the next time you find yourself in a debate about the earth being flat, Paul McCartney’s death in 1966, or a moon-landing conspiracy theory, consider whether you are confirming the truth or something rather silly.