Tag Archives: confirmation bias

Curating our Memories

If we had the obligations of institutions like museums, all of us would probably have to periodically amend the landmark narratives in our lives that we have incorrectly remembered.

There are no shortage of examples of museums and archives that have been forced to correct their narratives about past events.  Was a painting in a gallery actually the property of a Jewish family who had to forfeit it to the Third Reich? Is that tribal dress portrayed in an exhibit of an indigenous group really accurate, given recent and revised histories?  Do our textbook descriptions of the American Constitution adequately treat the deference to slave-owning that historians and progressives now see in some of its provisions, including the electoral college?

Remember the Lerner and Lowe song in Gigi sung by an older couple?

He: We dined with friends.
She: We ate alone.
He:  A tenor sang.
She: A baritone.
He: Ah, yes, I remember it well. That dazzling April moon.
She: There was none; and the month was June.
He: That’s right. That’s right.
She: It warms my heart to know that you remember still the way you do.

On big and little matters, we tend to curate our own histories with details that still seem clear. One personal example: I was certain I witnessed the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic Convention in front of a television set in a basement playroom on Quebec Street in Denver. I can still picture the black and white images of the horrors unfolding on Michigan Avenue in front of the Hilton Hotel, vivid as if they were yesterday. The “clear” mental image stays because it marks the sinking feeling that must come to most young Americans when they first encounter a national trauma that pushes aside a simpler faith in national invincibility. The storms of American political and cultural life are an unintended national birthright, forcing amendments to exceptionalist narratives that finally must give way.

But I digress. The problem with my memory is that I could not have been in my parent’s basement in Denver. In 1968 I was living in Sacramento California, where almost no one has a basement. And I was a senior in college, not the higher schooler I remember.  The dates are irrefutable markers. If we functioned like public institutions, all of us would probably have to rework the landmark events in our lives that we have curated as mental exhibits. This amounts to the same kind of historical refurbishment that now happens regularly, using the tenets of critical race theory, the #Metoo movement, and other redefining perspectives. At institutions like the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the creation of amended narratives must now go on all of the time.

I have not checked, but I wonder if the National Constitution Center In Philadelphia has tempered its assessments of the founding document to reckon with the last President’s trashing of what seemed like well-established norms. The emoluments clause prohibiting the use of the office to make money is a case in point. Similarly, writing history texts for grade-schoolers has become an occupation that now leaves some school boards and publishers figuratively bloodied. The question of who gets to tell the stories of our collective past has turned into its own kind of battlefield.

Psychologically, we are not well-positioned to abandon inaccurate narratives. As has been much discussed through the recent election and its aftermath, Americans are like most people who resist new corrective narratives that bump up next to older inaccurate ones. As noted elsewhere, the tension between the two creates an uncomfortable form of dissonance we would like to avoid. And so we often take the avoidance route: only considering evidence that confirms what we already believe.

Snap Judgments

One would think that moderns educated on the complexities of the world would shun snap judgments and favor more considered conclusions. But such hopeful flattery is probably unearned.  

Tweets and other instant forms of response are doing their part to school us to accept norms that put judgment ahead of inquiry. Our taste for quick rejoinders means that judgment has already made the final turn before reasoned inquiry has left the gate.

Our public rhetoric is now consistently reactive.  We look for the simplest ways to express outrage and dismay, as any sampling of online comments remind us.  Most of us expect to read snappy attitudes uttered with conviction and and usually some vitriol. A person who responds to a question or thoughtful assertion with a “not sure” is likely to be seen as a little slow.

Snap judgments about the world are mostly unearned gifts that we give ourselves.  A sharp claim stakes out territory we can own. But anyone who takes time to notice will see that our popular and social media are filled with advocates who are in weeds over their heads.  Certainties on topics about which we know very little are as common as black flies in Maine.  And their lifespan is about as long.

 

Somehow our public rhetoric needs to pull back to give space to the considered conclusions where accuracy matters more than an immediate answer.

Thankfully, there is a language for processes of deliberation and truth-testing.  When the stakes are high, we want knowledgeable people in charge of making considered judgments.  For example, will the Boeing 737 MAX fly again soon? Presumably smart people employing solid engineering practices will be make that call.  We should expect that more will happen than the President’s suggestion that we simply give the plane a new name. Likewise, as a nation we should eventually determine if the same leader has engaged in the crime of obstruction of justice.  My quick judgment is a firm “yes.” But I’m willing to defer to legal experts who better understand criminal and legal benchmarks. Somehow our public rhetoric needs to pull back to give space to considered conclusions where accuracy matters.

A Lexicon of Truth Testing

We can construct a kind of hierarchy of decision-making mechanisms that ought to be in our minds when we seek answers to a nagging problems.  Near the top I would place the discovery process in legal proceedings. In advance of a trial, each side in criminal and civil cases has the opportunity and time to gather the facts and a full narrative.  Both sides can interview credible witnesses, subpoena documents and seek outside expertise.  A discovery process that is thorough, for example, is apt to use DNA evidence that can be help determine if a suspect could have committed an assault.

Serious investigative journalism has a similar process, often requiring two independent confirmations of an event before it can be reported.  The hearsay of one source is not enough.  Good examples of this process are found in the classic journalism sagas Spotlight (2015) and All the President’s Men (1976).  Spotlight seems especially accurate in telling the story of the Boston Globe’s research of coverups of child abuse committed by priests and church leaders in the Boston area.

Drug makers seeking to introduce a new medicine will typically need to show the efficacy of a treatment by doing some double-blind studies: tests of the proposed treatment administered to two comparable groups of patients, one getting a placebo, and the other receiving the treatment. In a double-blind study neither the patients nor clinicians administering the “meds” know whether they are handling the real stuff.  Will the experimental group get better? It’s usually a fair form of the experimental method to see if the new drug can outperform improvements triggered by the placebo effect in the ‘control’ group.

Among social scientists there is a great deal of fudging that turns correlational studies into unjustified conclusions that suggest causation.  Human research follows the general protocols of the hard sciences, even though human subjects are not easily isolated for study. For example, fast food restaurants in an area aren’t always the cause of high levels of obesity among the residents in a nearby neighborhood.  Some studies have asserted this claim with only an assumption of causation.

In many other realms we are usually open to a future leader who is doing a “listening tour” rather than a rally; or other figures who are prepared to make “reasonable inferences” or see significance in analogous situations. All are explicitly making room for logics that reserve space for more open-minded tests of a claim’s validity.

Near the bottom of the list we are left with a vast majority of public comments representing patterns of “motivated reasoning” or “confirmation bias.” These are common mental processes that allow acceptance of evidence or ideas only if they confirm what the perceiver already believes.