Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


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

Turn up the static so I can not hear what I want to not hear
By Eric Black

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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?