I have written in the past about something called confirmatory bias. It’s a potent psychological force to which all of us (including yours truly) are vulnerable. Its effect is to have us perceive the universe through the lens of our beliefs, preferences and prejudices. It leads us to embrace news accounts, scientific studies and expressions of opinion that are consistent with our sense of the world much more readily than those that are inconsistent, while finding ways to find fault with the inconsistent ones.
A potential corollary of confirmatory bias has to do with the speakers or authors of the statements that are consistent with our worldviews. We tend to like people who agree with us (shocking, I know, but true), and tend to dislike people who disagree with us. Those who preach the gospel we believe are brilliant, thoughtful, intelligent and right on point. Those who preach a message that is divergent from our beliefs are naïve, poorly informed, prejudiced or worse.
Tendencies here. We don’t always respond this way. But it is a natural (and powerful) tendency of which we do well to be aware.
Take the case of Cliven Bundy.
Mr. Bundy rose to national prominence over his refusal to pay the Bureau of Land Management what the agency says it is owed for his grazing of cattle on protected federal land, and over some of the actions the BLM has taken that have stirred up a hornet’s nest of local opposition. Mr. Bundy’s case has been embraced nationally by some, like Senators Dean Heller and Ted Cruz, as symbolic of federal government overreach. Senator Heller called Bundy and his supporters “patriots.” Senator Cruz said their efforts were a response to the fact that, under the current administration, our freedoms are “under assault.”
Others have viewed the armed militia that has formed to defend Mr. Bundy from the federal government’s agents as just the most recent manifestation of the work of “racist, anti-Semitic violent groups.” Pictures of “militia” members aiming scoped rifles at federal agents prompted Senator Harry Reid to describe them as “domestic terrorists.”
Notice that I haven’t said much about the facts of the case.
Looking at who is saying what about Mr. Bundy and his allies, one can readily imagine that there may be a fair amount of confirmatory bias operating here, on all sides.
But the story that broke in the New York Times yesterday, in which Mr. Bundy is quoted making patently offensive comments about “Negroes” has reset the table for many former admirers and reinforced the convictions of many critics.
My point is this:
We not only tend to agree with comments and actions that are consistent with our own beliefs and world view; we tend to attribute to those who make such comments and take such actions other characteristics we consider to be positive. In effect, if I think you are right (because you agree with me), then I’m also likely to think you are smart, noble, dedicated, a great person and probably even good looking. We take a fragmentary piece of evidence that says, “This guy agrees with me,” and turn it into “This guy is like me . . . only maybe better.”
Because, after all, only a smart, noble, dedicated individual, a great person (and good looking) would believe the things we believe and say the things we wish we had said.
But venal, selfish, narrow-minded folks can agree with us, too. They even can be pretty ugly, truth to be told.
For public leaders, the lesson is clear: An ally in a cause can be more damaging than an enemy. It pays to be clear, from the beginning, about what we are aligning ourselves with and what we are not.
And before we call anyone a “patriot,” we might want to become a bit more familiar with what they think they are fighting for.