Confirmation bias has to be one of the most pervasive – and shittiest – aspects of human nature. By definition, it’s our natural tendency to only search for information that conforms to our preconceptions. In other words, we are naturally disposed to seeing only what we want to see.
And it’s all around us. You don’t like someone? You’ll only see their bad points. You had a bad meal in a restaurant? The service will be bad too, and they left a stain on the tablecloth. The wrong party got into power? Look at the mess they created.
If you have a vested interest in anything it’s likely that the gales of confirmation bias will roar around you. If you’re selling or promoting something it’s likely you’ll jump with delight on information that could promote your business. You’ll jump with annoyance, though, on any statement to the contrary. The same goes for fossil fuels, quack autism cures, homeopathy, fortune telling, you name it.
I want to take the German refugee crisis as an example, because I’m currently stuck in a debate about it. Because of the devastation of Syria and Iraq, tens of thousands of refugees are arriving in Germany each week. A million people could come there in the coming months. This is undoubtedly going to put stress on everything: schools, housing, hospitals, social services and policing. It wouldn’t matter where the people came from or what their religion was: a million people arriving from anywhere would pose big problems to residents.
Many locals are less than happy. Listening to them I get the impression that the refugees are the worst people imaginable. A lot of the arguments hinge around stories of criminality or personal affronts. Sheep getting stolen, youths going to the toilet on doorsteps, local women being insulted as whores, that kind of thing. Terrible stuff indeed.
But here are a couple of things that make me pause.
First, are all the stories true? When hearing stories that we badly want to hear, our critical faculties often disappear. The statement itself is proof enough. Because it conforms with what we already believe, why be sceptical about it?
Second, what about the disconfirming stories? The stories of immigrants or refugees doing nothing of the sort? Of minding their own business? Of doing something nice for other people? You won’t hear many of these because nobody wants to talk about them. Nobody likes a good story ruined.
Third, in what way does a story like this extrapolate out to the wider community? You will find criminality everywhere and desperation may provoke additional anti-social behaviour amongst some people. Even still, lots of stories like this are unlikely to be indicative of a mass movement of people, hell-bent on exploiting their hosts.
Fourth, because these people are escaping a bad situation, doesn’t necessarily mean that the badness is coming with them. If they loved the awfulness of ISIS and government terrorism so much, then why are they leaving in such numbers?
Now, it’s quite possible that it’s me who is biased, that it’s me who is giving the refugees far too much credit and that I am not considering the genuine problems of local residents. Maybe I’ve become too leftie for my own good and it’s addled my brain. It could be. After all, I’m just as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone else. However my experience is that most people are basically decent. They are more interested in washing machines and putting food on the table than they are about forcing others to conform to their way of thinking. Kids tend to behave like kids everywhere and while it’s more complicated with adults, it’s the complications that make it such a muddy picture. There are good people and bad people and every shade in between. If we ignore all this variety in order to adopt a convenient fantasy that they are all the same, we take steps down some very, very dark pathways. Perhaps that’s just wishy, washy, liberal me talking.