Many years ago, when I was a very young woman, I was in a horrible relationship. I was unencumbered by children, I had supportive parents, and I had ample opportunity to leave… but I stayed. I stayed for several years, until someone came and hauled me out.
Why did I stay?
Well, I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, given the recently political climate. And you may wonder what my relationship has in common with politics, but if you bear with me, I’ll explain.
I stayed in my relationship because of self-deception, because I persistently and stubbornly told myself that I could be happy where I was. I could manage! He wasn’t such a bad guy! Every relationship has problems, right?
There was ample evidence that things were getting worse, not better, but I ignored it all. I had made my choice and I was going to stick with it. Even if it cost me my emotional health, my financial security, and my friends, I would refuse to acknowledge my mistake.
Self-deception. Can you see the political link now? Think of anti-vaxxers, blindly sticking to their beliefs, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. Think of Trump supporters, who continue to sing his praises, despite mounting indications that he is verging on lunacy. Think of climate-change deniers, who will refuse to acknowledge environmental damage until the earth bursts into flames.
It’s confirmation bias – our irresistible tendency to believe what we wish to be true.
Of course, it’s easy to pick confirmation bias in someone else. We think of anti-vaxxers or Trump supporters or climate-change deniers and we can see clearly that they are deceiving themselves. But we ALL deceive ourselves, every day. We all filter out information that we don’t want to see, in our news feeds, in our interactions, in our reading habits, in our thoughts.
We convince ourselves that we will stick to our diet, that we are not at all racist, that eating “organic” will keep us healthy, that we don’t need feminism. We deceive ourselves that this bit of rubbish won’t hurt, that our kid wouldn’t bully anyone, that we’re giving plenty to charity, that he won’t do it again.
And the biggest self-deception of all is how steadfastly we insist that we are not deceiving ourselves.
Much has been written over the years about confirmation bias. A recent piece in the New Yorker reviewed three new books on the topic, all of which explore the problem without managing to offer solutions. We know why we are prone to confirmation bias – it is an error of reason that helps us to make sense of an information-dense world – we just don’t know how to change it.
Self-deception is almost impossible to break down; we seek out the information that confirms our own prejudices, and ignore the information that contradicts it. Tell a “clean eater” that there is no scientific evidence that organic food will improve their health and they will give you a thousand reasons why you are wrong.
Critical thinking is difficult. It is the ability to critique what is written on the page or screen (or blasted on Fox News) and to analyse, reason and research. It’s fairly easy to challenge someone else’s beliefs, but it’s far more difficult to challenge our own. It’s uncomfortable, which is exactly why we avoid doing it. It’s much more comfortable to stick with what we already believe.
But we need to try. We need to at least accept the possibility that our beliefs are wrong, and to consider other perspectives and other arguments. We don’t have to change our minds. We just need to open them, one step at a time.