“Confirmation Bias, Emily, and Henry” – August 9, 2009

Most of us are guilty of confirmation bias. We pay attention to and note events and behaviors that confirm things we already believe, and we fail to note events and behaviors that create dissonance with those prior beliefs. I notice everything Obama does right, and I noticed everything Bush did wrong. I visit websites – Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo – that generally share my point of view. And I’ve stayed away from cable news lately because I don’t want to hear what they have to say. I turn it off and find something that I do want to hear.

This tendency extends from the wide world of politics to the intricacies of human interaction. When we believe that we’re good and worthy people, we’ll notice behavior that confirms that belief. We recognize the smile, the compliment. But if we believe ourselves to be unworthy, we’ll pay more attention to the unsmiling, the uncomplimentary.  And, of course, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Smiles beget more smiles, frowns beget more frowns.

I’ve written about the lines of Dickinson that pop into my head, begetting more frowns: “I’m nobody!”  But with a little more thought control, I push Emily out and let Thoreau in: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you have imagined.”  At the least, I stand up straighter.

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