Understanding Confirmation Bias in the Age of “Fake News”

In these tense political times, an increasing number of people admit to getting much of their news from Facebook and Twitter. One of the problems with using these social media platforms as one’s primary news source relates to the danger of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a concept from psychological theory referring to our tendency to both consciously and unconsciously seek out, internalize, and accept information which supports our existing views and beliefs and to avoid, ignore, and reject any information which contradicts it. This bias is understood to be pervasive and independent of age, gender, ethnicity, education, or political persuasion.

I still remember learning in the first social psychology course I took in college that from a psychological perspective, opposites absolutely do not attract. Most individuals attract and are attracted to like-minded people (i.e., you got a lot of your values from your parents, you pass your values on to your children, and you pick friends who hold similar views). Nowhere is this more obvious than on social networks. Many of your most politically active friends on Facebook probably have views similar to yours. Over time, you come to believe that those views are the norm and anything else is not. Many folks will even go so far as to un-friend or un-follow a “friend” whose beliefs conflict too strongly with their own. All of this curating (both intentional and unintentional) of our social networks narrows our views, perpetuates “us versus them” thinking, and makes hate easier and empathy harder.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen online. No one really reads the newspaper cover to cover. We scan newspapers for headlines and read the headlines that feel most salient or important to our current worldview. Often, this means reading the articles whose headlines we agree with right off the bat, our eyes scanning right past the articles that might challenge our beliefs. This pattern of information consumption is, at best, passive, and at worst, lazy – it takes considerably less effort and mental work to focus on information that supports our preexisting hypotheses rather than look for evidence that might disprove them. And our tunnel vision narrows further.

The problem is: confirmation bias causes us to miss out on new perspectives and information. The explosion of social media in the last 10-15 years has contributed to an incredible array of diverse news sources. In turn, most new sources have become more biased than ever before. And many of us either purposely seek out news which we know is biased or just no longer know where to turn for anything impartial and objective. So the term “fake news,” which seems so preposterous, is now a part of our daily vernacular.

The good news is that understanding the power of confirmation bias can help us make concerted efforts to reduce its effects. Lately, I am purposely seeking out news sources that don’t fit immediately and neatly into my ideologies. Yes, sometimes that only further solidifies my prior views, but it also helps me understand others’ perspectives, what stances they are taking, and how they use data and words to present their points. The Pew Research Center indicates that there are also some news sources that are generally accepted as trustworthy and fact-based by most of the political spectrum, or “centrist”. These include The Economist, BBC, ABC, USA Today, Google News, and the Wall Street Journal (Read). So think before you post “news” from a biased source. And when faced with news that is hard to take, it’s always a good idea to step back from the computer and take a deep breath, and follow that up with one more deep breath. And repeat.

Paige Fegan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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