By Paul John Caña
I used to know someone who was a big fan of a female politician. He always filled his Facebook feed with news of the government official’s exploits, mostly glowing accounts of her many accomplishments. This was in spite of the many criticisms hurled against her and allegations of corruption involving officials close to her. He wasn’t swayed though, and kept posting links to stories that detailed how much his idol was truly making a difference in people’s lives.
I have another friend who’s convinced that every guy he meets is gay. Actually, scratch that: he thinks every guy in the known universe is gay. When a reputable entertainment website runs a story about a male celebrity’s supposed dalliances with women, it’s ignored. But when one dubious gossip site insinuates that same celebrity is getting it on with his male gym buddy, he’ll share that piece of news with the unexpressed but obvious message of “I knew it!”
These two examples illustrate instances of what I’ve recently come to discover is a phenomenon called confirmation bias. The layman’s definition is the tendency to look for proof that confirms or justifies one’s own preconceived notions, while completely ignoring any evidence to the contrary. It’s basically favoring data that props up whatever we’ve already decided to be true, while simultaneously dismissing the opposite as false or unreliable.
Think of a TV show that you’re absolutely obsessed with, say, FRIENDS, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones. Wouldn’t you be more likely to share an article that celebrates the show and discusses in detail what exactly makes it great, instead of a story that picks it apart and points out glaring errors or stupid mistakes? You feel better when a close friend agrees with you when you say you believe that another friend should break up with her boyfriend because he’s no good for her. Ask a friend about a particular car brand, and when he says he thinks it’s crap, you’ll tend to focus on its shortcomings when you do your own due diligence. And when you have a particularly awful experience with a hotel, don’t you feel like searching online for people who’ve posted similar opinions about it so you can say, “See! It’s not just me!”
Confirmation bias is human nature. We’re wired to seek validation for our beliefs. And with the coming national elections, it’s all the more pronounced, especially for people who’ve already made up their minds about certain candidates. You hate Binay? Then every story about his involvement in alleged corruption is just another reason why people shouldn’t vote for him. Absolutely despise Duterte? You’re probably not even thinking about what he has to say about the economy. It’s the same with the other presidential candidates: odds are a majority of Filipinos have, by now, developed an opinion about all of them.
People who already support a candidate will most likely keep building their image of him or her by picking and choosing from the kind of news that reaches them. At the same time, it’s unlikely any amount of good deed or some sort of redeeming quality will make people change their mind about someone they have already decided to dislike. It’s a bit like dismissing acclaim for Matt Damon in The Martian, when you’re so convinced Leonardo Dicaprio deserves the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in The Revenant.
It affects our perception of media, too. How many times have we asked, or heard somebody ask, why does so-and-so newspaper always publishes negative stories about Candidate A? Why is TV Network X allotting more airtime for Candidate B in its newscasts? It’s likely we ignore the times when media do run stories contrary to our opinions of certain candidates. And even if we do take notice, what are the chances we’ll actually stop and consider the report, instead of making a snide, cynical comment? (Of course, whether or not the media outlets are completely impartial is up for debate, and is fodder for discussion for another time).
In other words, we scour the landscape thinking we’re looking for information, when what we’re really after is confirmation: of pre-existing beliefs, irrational biases, steadfast opinions.
Think about confirmation bias the next time you’re researching something: a brand of make-up, a new movie coming out, that restaurant that just opened, a potential date, or yes, even (or especially) presidential candidates. Have you already made up your mind and are just finding a reason to feel comfortable? Or do you genuinely want to find out more?
The trick is to be open to receive all kinds of data – the good and the bad, the anticipated and the unexpected, the useful and the egregious – and use that to make an informed decision. Confirmation bias may be human, but that doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge its existence and choose to be more discerning. It takes a bit more work, but I think we owe it to ourselves, and in the end, we’ll be better human beings for it.