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Turn up the static so I can't hear what I want to not hear

One of my recurring rants, here and elsewhere, is the one about the twin demons of "confirmation bias" and "selective perception." Some of us may try harder than others to be open-minded and to be informed. But most of the time, most of us use the tricks of selective perception to avoid giving serious consideration to information and arguments that might challenge what we already believe.

I'm reading "True Enough," a smart book by journalist Farhad Manjoo (subtitle: "Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society," which is substantially about people's ability to hear what they want to hear in order to believe what they want to believe. Cable TV news (would you rather hear the Fox or the MSNBC version of what Obama did today?), talk radio (how many lefties listen to righty talk radio, or if they are open to what they are hearing?) and the internet all seem to make it easier and easier to avoid hearing challenging news or views (unless it is being ridiculed) and easier to confirm one's pre-existing biases or beliefs.

Manjoo most writes about recent and more political stuff (he's very interested in how the Swift-Boaters had the success that they did in 2004) but at the beginning of Chapter Two he writes about a 1967 psych experiment that really nails the phenomenon.

The experiment was designed so that college students would be asked to listen to a series of short speeches. They were told that the recordings were made on cheap equipment and were static-y, but there was a button they could push to make the static subside for a while so they could hear better. The students did not know that their decisions when to push the static-clearing button were really the point of the experiment.

In 1967 the question of the cancer-smoking link was still being debated. One of the speeches was about the evidence that smoking causes cancer. Another was by someone disputing the cancer link.

After each student had listened to the speeches, they answered some questions, including whether they smoked. Sure enough, the smokers were much less likely than the non-smokers to press the static-clearing button so they could hear the speech affirming the cancer-smoking link. But they were much more likely than the non-smokers to press the button so they could hear the speech disputing the cancer link.

Denial, as they say, ain't just a river in Egypt.

In a more scientific, objective, truth-hungry world, the smokers should have been more anxious to find out whether their habit was bad for them. But they were addicted to smoking and their desire to believe that the it was okay was greater than their desire to know.

The discussion of selective perception and confirmation bias eventually has to deal with the issue of journalistic selections and biases. I don't claim to be above these issues, although I do try. I would like ericblackinnk to be a place where people of different political beliefs can expect to be treated with respect and as much open-mindedness to real facts and good arguments as we poor homo sapiens can manage.

Plus, I thought the static-button experiment was hilarious. This link will get you Manjoo's discussion of the study.

What think?

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Comments (5)

The public has been unwilling to understand the truth about our economic problems for quite some time now. The concept you describe is deeply imbedded in our culture in many ways. Perhaps the greatest and most expensive luxury of all is the ability to deny reality.

We won't be able to afford it much longer. It'll be interesting to see what happens when people actually want the truth rather than the usual BS.

I have often wondered about freedom and how you can tell you are truly free. One of the symptoms is, are you free to get it wrong?

When that happens, usually the consequences help correct the wrong action going forward, if those consequences don't do you in in the mean time.

I wonder if we've become so balkanized in our information sources, and so freely apply selective filtering and sharpening to what information we pay attention to, that we are becoming ungovernable as a nation. Erik Hare's example is a good one - do we deny economic reality until the Chinese force us back to it by cutting off cheap money and labor, forcing an even deeper recession in the US?

Efforts like Mr. Black's may yet save us from such fates .... if the partisans on the several edges of political/economic views will join in.

Let's hope so

Thanks you Eric for this insight. As a liberal who tries to listen to conservative talk radio I have been mystified by the common acceptance of "facts" that can be easily and objectively falsified by other abundant evidence. However, I do not often turn the same light on my own accepted "facts". This is why civil conversation between people of differing views is essential to a complete understanding of an issue. Perhaps next time I will engage my conservative Christian brother in a conversation about the subjects we so carefully avoid.

It seems that the art of broad communication may be enticing both sides to push the "static button" and immediately presenting information that they don't want to hear.....

I blame three factors:

>Daily stress, which makes us more intolerant of any added stressors -- like the spun statements with which we are daily bombarded. We don't have the time to check them out, but we have a gut feeling the statements are inaccurate -- so we just tune them out.

>The TV mute button, which makes it easy.

>The instinctive response to feeling threatened, which so many biased spokespersons seem so savor: "Be afraid" is often the watchword, from the "daily medical meditation" to the prophets of doom on all sides.

When I am exhausted and stressed out from a day of work and fighting traffic, and some idiot on the news hour starts trying to scare me once again I just press the mute button to find some peace. I suspect others do the same. It can become a habit.

I think there's a danger in assigning too much blame to innate human traits, psychologizing can undermine our ability to make good public policy by over emphasizing our personal demons.

Selection and confirmation bias are certainly legitimate phenomena, but they can be mitigated by a well trained intellect and the capacity for critical thought.

I think there are two factors that have undermined critical thinking in the US. We have to recognize that we've been experiencing a period of anti-intellectualism in the US for about three decades. While mostly promoted from the right end of the political spectrum this has also been supported by liberal encouragement to develop and express opinions. Both the right and the left have de-emphasized rational thinking with constant appeals to emotion and personal preference. This phenomena is well described in Susan Faludi's book "The Age of Unreason". Faludi's book kinda runs out of steam eventually, and she falls victim to some nostalgia about a more intellectual time in America but she still makes a valid point.

The second contribution, and this is every bit as much a liberal and well as a conservative phenomena, is consumerism. We've spent the last several decades cultivating and promoting consumerism as the dominant feature of our society. We've ended up turning a nation of citizens into a nation of consumers.

I don't listen to talk radio, but I did give Al Franken's show a listen for a few weeks when he first went on the air. He had this "ditto head" segment where he'd have this Rush Limbaugh friend of his try to defend some crap or another that Rush had said the previous day. Day after day Franken would play some demonstrably false and outrageous thing that Rush had said, and day after day this guy would defend Rush. After a while it became clear that this didn't listen to Rush because he actually considered him to be a reliable source of information, he listened simply because he liked what Rush was saying, it was consumer behavior, not intellectual behavior. People aren't just confirming bias, they're entertaining themselves, it's not about information, it's about comfort. I think that's why a lot of this actually started with the morning sports talk programs. People aren't looking for reliable information, they're acting like consumers not intellectuals, worse, many people don't seem to know the difference. But then I'm just a snob.

At any rate this isn't just about our personalities. We've made a series of really bad policy choices that have contributed to this situation. For one thing, we seem to have decided that policy is irrelevant. We don't need good policy as long as we've got good resume's. Our children are discovering the folly of this myth as they graduate into an economy with no jobs with really good resume's in hand. We've dumbed down our educational systems for several reasons. We've dumbed down our public discourse. We've allowed media consolidation and repealed equal time doctrines that used to ensure a modicum of fairness and accuracy. We've promoted markets as self correcting solutions so all problems. We don't have to think about anything, we have to buy stuff and it will all work itself out. Our news programs especially local news have almost nothing to do with news and information anymore, they're all about pandering to fear and anxiety for ratings.

We could do better if we actually reformed our education system, but that would be policy. We could re-design an education that system to train intellects instead of build resume's. We could graduate student who are not merely degreed but also educated. Maybe then we'd have a generation a little less susceptible to confirmation bias. But as long as half the people in this country can't tell the difference between a scientific theory and religious scripture I wouldn't hold my breath.