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"My Belief" Bias

By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

There’s nothing like the start of a political season to remind us that when we have an agenda to promote, (especially if that agenda is our own aggrandizement), it’s tempting to take an absolutist position.

My position is right. Yours is not only wrong, it’s also half-baked, ill-advised and unwise. Though verbal attacks do not always spring out like Donald Trump blows, prick the surface and they are there.

But are politicians so different from us when we are mean, mad, scared or hyping our own agenda? Indeed not.

We all, at times, succumb to “my belief bias,” officially termed “confirmation bias.” This describes our tendency to seek out, interpret and pay attention to information (true or false) that confirms our beliefs. It’s why some of us swear by MSNBC News and others swear by FOX News.

We may believe that our thinking is sane, sensible and of sound mind but if we are dealing with an emotionally charged issue or a deeply entrenched belief, our thinking is far from rational and reasonable.

A personal story:

When my son, Glenn called me from the Ukraine, where he was living and working, to tell me that his next work assignment would be in Uganda, I panicked.

This was about 22 years ago. The only association I had with Uganda was Idi Amin, the bloody tyrant. To obtain more information, I visited the U.S. State Department website, then faxed their report to Glenn, showing him proof about how dangerous the country was.

He faxed me back, saying “See, Mom, I told you Uganda was safe.”

After a bit of discussion, I realized he was right. I was paying attention to the section of the report that warned of terrorist activity in Northern Uganda, a section of the country that you needed a visa to enter.

My fears led me to zoom in on the section of the report that supported my existing premise; Uganda was a dangerous country. Glenn’s lack of fear allowed him to be more objective.

So, are we doomed to be forever biased about information that confirms our existing beliefs?

Yes and no.

Some people persevere in their beliefs, even after the evidence overwhelmingly shows that their beliefs are false. “Damn the evidence. All those “brainy experts” think they know everything but they don’t know a damn thing.”

Still, many more people in our open, multi-cultural society are changing their beliefs over time, based upon new knowledge and new associations. Witness the acceptance of gay marriages and the removal “with dignity” of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol.

Still, confirmation bias is here to stay. So, next time you’re in the midst of a heated argument and are absolutely sure you’re right, take a moment to consider that confirmation bias may be contributing to your being overconfident in your convictions.

Then, take a deep breath, step back from your sermonizing and with an open and curious mind, listen, truly listen, to what the other person is saying.

How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age
Copyright © 2012: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and success coach who specializes in helping people overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. If your life is one long disconnect between what you intend to do and what you actually get around to doing, check out the new book, How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age.
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