Are You Confirming Stupid?

Creative Commons via blog.stackoverflow.com

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.

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2 comments:

  1. It’s been my experience in dealing with people whose belief structure forms along certain lines (popularly described as “conspiracy theorists”) are dealing from a very strong internal or core belief (that is unconscious in nature) that they live in a malevolent environment. This means, essentially, that all actions, by all people, are filtered through an unconsciously held perception of imminent “danger.”

    When one studies the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is a condition that arises from an event (or repeated events) in which the person’s life has been threatened, and / OR the person has the perception of his/her life being threatened.

    For most of us, its relatively easy to see how someone who has been in a combat system, or been in a natural disaster, or perhaps even been involved in long-term rescue of those affected by such events, but it is less easy to comprehend what happens to a child’s mind who has been subjected to domestic violence, physical, sexual, and /or emotional abuse on an ongoing basis. But just because we have difficulty making that leap, does not mean that many, many people have grown up with a pervasive sense of fear for their lives… This fear becomes internalized and is carried beneath a layer (or perhaps several layers) of functioning in the adult world.

    If a person already feels at his core that his life is in danger, it is no surprise that events in the outside world that mirror that danger, such as 911, the current events in Japan, and other similar events, trigger or spark a cascade of emotional reactions that, to many of us seem laughable in their logic.

    Your article asks those of us who are capable to find and use our rational mind and internal resources to gain traction on the stupidity that sometimes crops up with respect to this issue, and as such is perfectly stated. I’d like to see it go further, as the closer we get to the “danger” that an emergency management team is in place to help the community cope with, the more pervasive will be the onslaught of calls/letters (etc) that will arise from those whose fear of danger is so deeply held.

    Thank you for caring… for paying attention… AND please say more… if you can :)

    Julia

  2. Correction/edit :) please read this aspect of my earlier post as follows:

    For most of us, it’s relatively easy to see how someone who has been in a combat system, or been in a natural disaster, or perhaps even been involved in long-term rescue of those affected by such events, might be affected by such events, but it is less easy for us to comprehend what happens to a child’s mind who has been subjected to domestic violence, physical, sexual, and /or emotional abuse on an ongoing basis. These things are a violation to a child’s soul, and leave a permanent, and often invisible wound that thwarts relational development across the lifespan.

    We must realize that although we may have difficulty making that leap, it does not mean that many, many people haven’t grown into their adulthood with a pervasive sense of fear for their lives… This fear becomes internalized and is carried beneath a layer (or perhaps several layers) of functioning in the adult world.

    Thank you :)

    Julia

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