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September 27, 2008

We Hear What We Want to Hear

by Michael Langlois

According to the MediaCurves poll about the first presidential debate last night, Republicans overwhelmingly saw a McCain smackdown, while Democrats overwhelmingly saw Obama as the clear winner.

Are people crazy?  Kind of.  Confirmation Bias is something we all have, but few recognize or actively try to compensate for.  Basically, we tend to seek out information that reinforces our beliefs, and avoid or discount information that goes against them. I call this Football Team Syndrome.  If we screw up, it’s your fault, if you screw up, it’s your fault.  There was a time when this was a pretty clever strategy, keeping people centered in the tried and true tribal knowledge that kept them in food and rabbit pelts, and away from that guy who always claimed that bears were full of delicious candy.

Today, this tendency is easily and gleefully exploited by political parties who know that lying in an ad won’t hurt them with the faithful, and might just sway the fencesitters.  This is why you can hear the most absurd, outrageous things in a commercial or a speech, and at the same time see people in the same room nodding to themselves in satisfaction.

We all have confirmation bias, it’s just how we’re built.  But having it doesn’t mean that we can’t overcome it.  Seek out information about the other side and think about it.  Be skeptical on an item by item basis, and consider the source based on past performance, not affiliation, and when in doubt, check with less biased sources like factcheck.org.

Critical thinking is the single most important part of personal independence.  Enough people are working day and night to manipulate you, don’t help them by fooling yourself.

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