Watch out for your own confirmation bias


First, a true story:

I was a senior in high school, applying for college. One of the colleges I applied for was the Naval Academy. As part of the process, the Navy sent a Blue and Gold Officer (BGO) to interview me and answer any questions that I might have. As the interview proceeded, the BGO learned my father was a Marine avionics chief. He learned that I had a lifelong fascination with aircraft. He also learned that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. This interview happened as the market plummeted in the military aerospace industry. What he said next surprised me.

“You can be a test pilot!” he exclaimed.

At that time, my left eye was 20/100 with astigmatism. Pilot slots were hard to come by. Getting one as a newly commissioned officer meant you had to have at least 20/20 vision in both eyes. I was already having to go through a medical waiver process to be accepted into Annapolis because of my left eye. Therefore, I knew what he told me wasn’t true. I had done the research. I knew the numbers. I knew that I couldn’t be a test pilot. However, he continued on that thread for about five minutes, telling me that it was possible. I really wanted to believe what he told me.

I didn’t. However, the temptation to believe him was strong. In the end, it didn’t matter. I was accepted to the US Naval Academy (USNA). I chose to go to The Citadel instead. The Citadel was the correct path for me. My conversation with the BGO didn’t sway me to attend USNA. However, if I had let my confirmation bias win, I would have. I would also have chosen the wrong path.

As I see the latest news stories roll out, I see a lot of messages, each targeted to one side or the other of a particular issue. It has become particularly easy to find a message that agrees with one’s position, given by someone who looks to have enough valid credentials. It’s amazing how many times I see the same message reposted on social media as “the truth of the matter.” In reality, the majority of these aren’t the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” There’s often a lot of opinion presented as facts. There are too many cases where key facts that are in conflict with the position are not disclosed. Context is often shaped to promote the “truth” of the message. I’ve seen this irregardless of issue and/or side. Why do these stories, clips, and talking points keep getting posted? The answer is simple: confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias can get all of us. We like hearing messages that reinforce what we believe. We like being told that we are correct. Therefore, it’s easy to give in to confirmation bias. Resist that temptation. Spend some time digging a little deeper. Find messages which disagree with the position you think is correct. See if anything presented in those messages are factual and if so, do any of those facts contradict the position you agree with. Likely you’ll see that the truth is somewhere in the middle between the two opposing positions. Oh, and this doesn’t just apply to social media. We have the same issue wherever we have passionate, committed people: such at information technology.

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