Tag Archives: confirmation bias

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.

The Challenge of Reframing Leisure Choices as Ethical Choices

Street musician commons wikimedia
 Street musician                                                commons wikimedia

Even very good arguments describing musicians who are deprived of compensation usually have no impact on downloaders.

Communication often involves thinking strategically to find the right appeals that will produce compliance in a target audience. Searching for ways to induce others to accept the kinds of choices we endorse is always a challenge. And while it usually makes sense to focus on what works—strategies that show some success in getting agreement—I am struck with how difficult it is to produce one kind of change:  convincing individuals that a favored leisure activity is a bad ethical choice. It almost never works.

There are no shortages of relevant cases where we have all have been on the sending or receiving end of these appeals: criticizing attendance at sporting events that can result in serious injuries to the participants (boxing, football), decrying a life-style choice that wastes resources (owning a mile-to-the-gallon cigarette boat or SUV), attending performances that include individuals charged with making bad choices (avoiding films by Woody Allen), using products that come with significant health risks (smoking, racing motorcycles), and so on.  We all struggle with the apparent hypocrisy of violating our own values in the pursuit of the things we enjoy.

One especially good case study is the plea from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and any number of musicians to not download “pirated” music. The request is to instead purchase “legal” singles and albums from record companies or online retailers, who will then distribute royalties to songwriters and musicians. The cause seems just, even though the industry can be its own worst enemy, as in attempts by Warner Music to go after restaurants and public venues where someone might sing “Happy Birthday to you,” a song they erroneously claimed to own.

Piracy is no longer a new problem. But one can look at the state of the music industry today and conclude that the digital revolution has been cruel to musicians.  Stephen Witt’s recent book, How Music Got Free (Viking, 2015) is just the latest account of the unraveling of the record business, mostly at the hands of ordinary listeners who can now copy music files without payment.  Witt reports that there was only one platinum album (1 million units shipped) in 2014. The singer was Taylor Swift, and–as television’s ET reports– even she’s not happy.

We simply don’t buy as much recorded music any more. We rent it, sometimes legally from online services, and often borrow it from each other, bypassing a legitimate path for distributing royalties. Fewer albums and singles are sold today because a digital copy of any one can function as a “master” available to make many more.

I’m always impressed with how little impact solid arguments about musicians deprived of compensation actually have on listeners, which means most of us. We simply resist linking our behavior to the theft or “piracy” of someone’s creative work.  It’s not that we have to worry about whether Ms. Swift will be able to pay the light bill. It’s that musicians in virtually every musical category have been cut off from revenue streams that could support them.

And so a simple quid pro quo can be made: To support the musicians you like, buy their music.  But images of talented modern musicians living as paupers doesn’t motivate in the ways one might expect.  Adding in the argument that downloading is “theft” of their intellectual property hardly results in the kind of cognitive dissonance a persuader might expect.

Even students who are also budding musicians don’t seem to take the bait. Perhaps they should. As RIAA spokesman Cary Sherman noted in a 2012 speech, the Bureau of labor statistics estimates there is a 41% drop since 1999 in people who identify themselves as musicians. That corresponds to a continuing decline in the sale of recorded music of all sorts.  Even though more albums are being released, most (80%) sell less than 100 copies.

At several levels it’s obvious why we do not heed requests to change a behavior we enjoy. Our leisure passions are linked to our personal identity.  To give them up is to face the unwelcome thought of becoming at least a slightly different person. Then, too, the immediate rewards of our passion are much more tangible than compliance with a behavioral ideal. It’s probably only a few academics and some musicians who like to intellectualize potential hypocrisies.

In addition, we can generate perfect rationalizations that will take us off the hook.  We look for cases that will confirm a prefered view that no harm is done. Using this kind of process of “motivated reasoning,” we focus on the single instance that minimizes the power of arguments for change.  Hence: “Taylor Swift will never miss the puny royalties she would get from a legal download,” or “I paid too much to hear Paul McCartney last year,” or “I live by the principle that the internet ‘wants to be free.'”  And so we find ways to not notice the lie that separates our best instincts from our actions.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu