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People favor facts that fit their bias

From an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Ferguson, Mo., case:

Except for sports teams and the weather, people in St. Louis don’t share much in the way of common interests, attitudes, beliefs or goals. We suspect this is true of most places.

There are instead a multiplicity of communities and sub-communities, all the way down to micro-communities of people and their closest friends. Today each of the micro-communities can exist in a silo where never is heard a discouraging word. The news is framed the way we want. We believing what we want to believe, and woe betide anyone who thinks differently.

Social scientists call this “confirmation bias.” Human beings tend to look for reasons to believe what they already believe.

If you believe that Darren Wilson feared for his life, having wrestled with a huge and aggressive 18-year-old for a weapon, nothing in the evidence presented to the grand jury is likely to convince you otherwise. Read it anyway. Please.

If you believe, on the other hand that a “gentle giant” was accosted by a cop with a chip on his shoulder who shot him dead as he was trying to surrender, you aren’t buying any other story. Maybe your beliefs are underpinned by your own experience of being singled out for attention by cops because of the color of your skin. Read the evidence anyway. Please.

Confirmation bias steers us toward conclusions we are predisposed to reach, and away from anything that doesn’t meet our ingrained ideas. Indeed, studies have shown that on partisan political issues, the more people are presented with facts that disprove their beliefs, the more strongly they cling to them.

Political scientist James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who conducted an influential 2000 study of this phenomenon, calls it the “I know I’m right syndrome.”

Confirmation bias is a big problem for democracy. We owe it to each other and to society to keep an open mind, to seek out facts instead of relying on our beliefs. But this doesn’t play so well on Twitter and Facebook. They don’t call them “followers” for nothing.

Too many people know they’re right. They don’t want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. They’re happy with their own shoes, thank you very much.

Confirmation bias is also a big problem in picking jurors. That’s why defense attorneys and prosecutors are so careful during the trial jury selection process. They look for people who might be leaning their way. At the very least, they look for people with an open mind.

Grand jurors don’t get to hear defense lawyers. They hear what prosecutors want them to hear. The system can be abused, but given the extraordinary attention devoted to Wilson’s actions, it’s likely that every stone was turned over in this case. …

The various communities that make up St. Louis don’t have to like the grand jury decision. But they must abide by it. Difficult as it will be, we should all try to do what the grand jurors had to do: Open our minds.

The sort of real and permanent change that St. Louis needs is going to require quiet, sustained cooperation, not just loud protests. If we can open our minds, if we can find empathy with our fellow man, we can get to work healing the wounds that led to the tragedy on Canfield Drive.

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