Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Confirmation Bias

There is a nice Op-Ed piece by Michael Shermer in the Los Angeles Times on the connection between confirmation bias and cult like behavior. Last month was the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre which gave us our only Congressperson killed in the line of duty as well as the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid."

For those who don't know or remember, the Jonestown massacre was the mass suicide of 918 cult members in the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project led by Jim Jones in Guyana, though the group were mostly Americans who moved the organization there from California. After Congressman Leo Ryan visited the compound to investigate its activities, he along with several aids and journalists were shot at a while on the airstrip to leave. Ryan and four others were killed. After that incident, Jones urged his followers to take cyanide and end their lives rather than have their way of life taken from them. Most complied, though some were shot and others forced to drink. Why do we know this? Because the event was recorded on audio tape. The irony of it all is that apparently Ryan's report was going to be a favorable one. 

But what has this to do with confirmation bias? Confirmation bias is one of the biggest psychological impediments we have to understanding what is really the case compared to what we think is the case. For example, on days it might rain I may say to myself, "If I take an umbrella, I'll be prepared and therefore it won't rain." Sure enough, I take my umbrella and it doesn't rain. From this I think about all of the times this has happened and I confirm my original belief: that if I take an umbrella it won't rain, or even that the universe has a mean sense of humor. Of course this is nonsense, but this is how confirmation bias works. We are psychological prone to seek out examples, data, and facts that support our beliefs and ignore, forget, or discount and examples, data, or facts that disprove our beliefs. 

The connection between cults such as Jonestown or Heaven's Gate and confirmation bias is illustrated in the Congressman Ryan's visit and the cult members reaction to it. Jim Jones has been preaching for awhile that the government would try to stop them. This was probably not as hard to do as in other cults since Jonestown was based on communist ideals and so could use much of the anti-communist propaganda to promote the idea that the american government was against them. So despite Ryan's visit seeming to be favorable, the cult members (along with Jones) took the visit alone as evidence to back up their belief that the government was plotting against them. Any evidence to the contrary didn't match their beliefs and so was ignored or dismissed. 

With Heaven's Gate, the biggest piece of evidence that confirmed their belief that there was an alien space ship on it's way to take their spirits to paradise was the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet. 

Now granted these groups go out of their way to limit the contact and information with the outside to stop the picking up of facts, thoughts, or opinions that may counter the cult's core beliefs, yet the same principles apply (though likely to varying degrees) to every person. Some think that the remedy for this is to make sure you get your information from various sources. If you listen to Fox News for all of your news, then you should likely tune into MSNBC to counter Fox's conservative bias. I disagree. I think the best remedy is to be aware of confirmation bias and that we are all susceptible to it, and then use logic and reason to work our way through it. Listening to both sides will most likely leave one in the middle or cynical of any perspective, but as I've said before, "Truth is Biased." 

Hey, think I'll make that my new slogan!

The Rational Moderate

No comments: