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The Concurrent Closes Down; Confirmation Bias

This headline is an April Fools joke. The Concurrent is not shutting down, but rather on the contrary, we are gearing up for more regular content beyond these columns.

However, this fake headline probably evoked some gut reaction from you whether it was disappointment that you wouldn’t be able to read them anymore, or potentially, satisfaction that these would fail because anything new to the county is met with an understandable amount of apprehension.

Even now that is established as an April Fools joke, though, you may be working to reaffirm your initial reaction. Whether you were disappointed or satisfied with the news, in the back of your mind now might be, “well, it’s just a matter of time” even though we aren’t going anywhere. This too is understandable.

It’s an example of a concept in academia and journalism called the confirmation bias. We search for what we can believe rather than what we must believe. If you had been reading these columns with some reluctance or skepticism that they could continue, then the idea of them failing to continue becomes easy to believe.

When immediately confronted with the truth that they are going to continue coupled with the evidence that it is in fact April 1, then it is natural to still have lingering thoughts about what you can believe rather than what you must believe is true in the wake of changing information.

Let’s put this another way. I am currently writing this from my parents’ couch in Lakewood Ranch like I was a couple of weeks ago. My wife has already been able to spend some time with my five-year-old niece while I was teaching yesterday. As great of a kid as she is, like many five year olds if you told her she must do something, even if it’s eat ice cream, chances are you will get a defiant, “NO!”

But if you told her she can do something, even if it would be against her interest like share her ice cream with her sister, she is probably going to do so because an aspect to that behavior will be her choice and reinforce a behavior, in this case sharing that strengthens her sisterly bond, that is favorable to her.

This is the way adults tend to consume the news as well. We don’t search for what may be the most true, but rather we look for what is more reasonably within the realm of what we can believe.

Your confirmation bias may have been put to the test when a video of Sheriff Mike Prendergast engaging a citizen who had just thrown a cigarette butt on the ground surfaced this past week which was reported as having gone viral as yesterday’s Chronicle headline story.

Confirmation bias would suggest you had one of several different possible reactions. You may have been relieved that the sheriff would be bold enough to correct the injustice, as slight as it may appear, because it does still matter.

You may be dismayed that law enforcement would be taking the time to correct such a minor infraction when the county faces significant crime problems still. You may even think Prendergast is nothing more than a tyrant on a power trip exercising undue influence over a hapless but helpless member of the public.

These are three very different storylines that all stem from the same video. This is one half of the reason why you will sometimes hear someone’s opinion about a situation you have been following as well and wonder if you are even talking about the same scenario. Sadness can start to creep in when you realize it feels like you aren’t even living in the same realities as someone who is practically your neighbor.

Social media reinforces confirmation bias. Because the platforms’ algorithms are driven by engagement, whether this is physically liking or sharing a post or simply stopping your scroll to hover over it for a couple of additional seconds, the platforms will prioritize the content you engage with most to be what you see most often which also tends to be what we can believe within our own bias, not what we must believe if it’s beyond our narrowed perspective.

The confirmation bias is not easy to overcome and I fall victim to it often as well. However, just recognizing it, especially when there are viral examples based around a potentially polarizing figure like our chief local law enforcement officer, is one small step toward countering it.


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