They’re All Jerks

Welcome to another edition of “Name That Stereotype”, your chance to generalize, assume and judge for cash and prizes.

Dave, you’re first up…

Dave: I’ll take “Rich Jerks” for $100…

Here’s your question: A guy in a BMW cuts you off in traffic. Is he:
A.  In a hurry to get to his child’s birthday party?
B.  Rushing to the emergency room where his wife is giving birth? Or
C.  A rich jerk who doesn’t care about anyone but himself?

Dave: I’m going to go with C

Oh, I’m sorry Dave, the correct answer was “B: Rushing to the emergency room where his wife is giving birth.”

[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”] Just this morning on the way to my office this exact scenario played itself out. I was driving by one of the most exclusive housing developments in Nashville, and a guy in a BMW decided he was turning left into my lane of traffic. He seemed to have a total disregard of the fact there was no room, and everyone behind him had to slam on our brakes to “let him in” (as if we had a choice.)

My immediate response was the typical, “What a jerk. This rich guy thinks the whole world should bow to him!” And, in this case, it probably was true, but how can I be sure. Again, there is a whole myriad of reasons he pulled that move: not paying attention, late for an important meeting, thought there was more room than there actually was.

Here’s what’s going on

Researchers have identified something they call “confirmation bias.” Here’s how a quick search on Wikipedia describes this phenomenon:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning.

In other words, I attempt to help myself make sense of the world by selectively looking at the fact that agree with my presupposed worldview. I stereotype people, herd them into groups and judge them based on my pre-existing biases.

But notice the last sentence in that Wikipedia definition, “It is a…systematic error of inductive reasoning.” That means my beliefs about certain groups or individuals may be flawed. My attempt to group people together based on certain assumptions is wrong. It’s like saying, “Because A equals B in this case, A ALWAYS equals B.”

Confirmation bias is what got George Zimmerman into trouble with Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman acted on his confirmation bias about a black kid with a hood up at night. Turns out he was wrong.

Confirmation bias is what causes us to blindly trust members of our own political party and patently write off members of the opposition. It’s what causes us to choose Fox News or MSNBC, based on which network reinforces our already held beliefs.

But what if we’re wrong? What if the world is not how I perceive it? What if I have selectively segregated entire groups based on a small and unreliable sample of experiences. Because I got cut off by a guy in a BMW, all BMW drivers are selfish jerks? That doesn’t even make sense when you look at it objectively. Yet we all do this every day.

What’s the problem with this?

Imagine how many opportunities I might have missed because I had certain assumptions about certain people. How many arguments have I needlessly engaged in because I assume I know where the other person is coming from? What ideas have I totally disregarded because they disagree with my long-held views and beliefs?

Dr. Raymond Nickerson was one of the leading researchers on this topic of confirmation bias back in the 1960’s. Here’s what he wrote about it,

“If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration. Many have written about this bias, and it appears to be sufficiently strong and pervasive that one is led to wonder whether the bias, by itself, might account for a significant fraction of the disputes, altercations, and misunderstandings that occur among individuals, groups, and nations.”

You can see confirmation bias playing out in the racial and police conflicts and protests recently in the news. Buildings are burning, and our culture is in crisis because each group assumes things about the other that may or may not be true. But we hold to our beliefs because that’s what we’ve believed to be true for our entire lives.

How does this play out in your life? Do you fear moving forward because you think of yourself as a loser or incapable? Your confirmation bias is looking at a limited sample of failure, yet it’s a very small sample and probably not true.

Do you have trouble with a relationship because you assume you know from where the other person is coming?

Do you mistrust others because you’ve been burned in the past? Do you avoid certain people because someone similar mistreated you?

Or maybe your bias has worked in the other direction and caused unfounded optimism. Perhaps you started a business based on an idea you thought was brilliant, but no one else did? I’ve certainly done that, and it’s never turned out well.

How do we fix it?

I’m no psychologist, but I believe there are three strategies or steps we can take that might help us overcome our tendency to judge people or situations based on our confirmation bias:

Just admit it

Recognize your bias and think about times in your life you were wrong about a person or situation. Admit that you have judged people or events unfairly because of your existing belief systems. We have all done it. You don’t have to be a fire-breathing racist to admit you have unfairly judged people based on race, religion or any other factor that is different from you.

Admit it is wrong

Admitting I have judged people based on my bias is not the same thing as admitting it is wrong. My beliefs have a way of assuring me I’m right, and they are wrong. I’m not saying your beliefs are wrong, I’m saying that it’s wrong to assume I am right, and you are wrong in every disagreement or difference. The Catholic church assumed Galileo was a heretic. They were wrong. White people in the South assumed desegregation would end the world as they knew it. They were wrong. Is it possible you are wrong too?

Seek out the truth

The main reason we engage in confirmation bias is because it makes it easier for us to make sense of the world. Lumping people into groups saves us the time and effort required to judge each person or situation on its own merit. It takes effort to seek the truth instead of believing the stereotype. And it takes humility to admit my deeply held beliefs might not be true or accurate.

Again, I’m not saying your beliefs are wrong. I’m saying they might be wrong. The guy who pulled in front of me this morning might have been a total, selfish, rich jerk. But maybe not.

What I am urging you to do is admit it’s possible. Look at your Amazon wishlist and see if there are any books on there that might challenge your beliefs. Look at the friends you spend time with and see if there are any that might offer a different point of view. To surround ourselves with only those ideas that reinforce our own might be causing us to miss ideas and opportunities we might never otherwise consider. Who knows where it might lead. Chaos? Anarchy? Heartburn? Perhaps. But the truth is always worth the struggle.

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