Back in mid-March, I wrote a blog post called “Ditching the Dissonance.” In this blog, I discussed how quickly bad information gets around, and how we become complicit in spreading it across the Internet via social media. I discussed the term “cognitive dissonance”, the theory that we “seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes in any situation where two cognitions are inconsistent.” Today I want to consider how confirmation bias can influence our information seeking habits and how it can be detrimental to rational debate.
Foraging in the vast information fields of the Interwebs
Here’s a thought-provoking analogy from an old Library Quarterly article, cited in a paper presented by the Faculty of Information Studies of the University of Toronto:
Just as animals evolve different methods of gathering and hunting food or prey in order to increase their intake of nutrition, humans also adopt different strategies of seeking information in order to increase their intake of knowledge. Foraging for information on the Web and foraging for food share common features: both resources tend to be unevenly distributed in the environment, uncertainty and risk characterize resource procurement, and all foragers are limited by time and opportunity costs as they choose to exploit one resource over another (Sandstrom 1994).
Librarians are great foragers and can help us find the best information to meet our needs but not everyone has librarian-level information foraging skills. Some of us are poor information foragers because we lack the skills OR we have the skills but aren’t always willing to utilize them. Sometimes we are short on time and need to take shortcuts on our information seeking journey. Sometimes we can’t be bothered to sift through the huge amount of information available to us so we choose the top results that Google returns. Sometimes we just want the information that will help us make the point we are trying to make in the heat of a debate and we don’t want the information that doesn’t support it. This is where confirmation bias comes in.
Confirmation bias, as defined by Science Daily is “a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.”
Even on a good day, confirmation bias can be a bad thing. When you are angry, it can be a disaster.
You mad, bro?
There’s a quote from one of my favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: “Angry people are not always wise.” (Tweet This) While this is usually true, never is it truer than when we apply it to our information seeking behaviors. Have you ever gotten into a debate on Facebook or Reddit, or observed other people engaged in debate, and watched the debate deteriorate to the level of name-calling and—even worse—the posting of links to hastily Googled, poorly sourced “articles” (as spurious blog posts are sometimes called)? I have seen debates like this end friendships.
I’ve always thought that the most amazing thing about Facebook, and the Internet in general, is its power to unite people who are separated by distance—people who haven’t seen each other for decades, relatives, etc.—or people who wouldn’t have met in real life but find each other on the Internet through shared interests and experiences. Yet, just as easily, it can tear these relationships apart and create enemies of people we’ve never even met because of the anonymity it provides. We can say things behind a computer screen that we’d never say to another human’s face. This is dangerous stuff.
When you are angry, you are not a good decision-maker, nor are you a good information-seeker. (Tweet This) You think you are, in the heat of the moment, but you aren’t. You are the worst information seeker you can possibly be when you are angry because you are looking for only the information that confirms your opinion, are incapable of viewing information in an unbiased way, and do not take the time to filter bad information. At that point, you are not a peaceful caribou, foraging serenely in a field of bibliographic database search results, selecting only the best, most reliable information to meet your information needs; you are a rabid wolf, stalking any shred of information, reliable or not, to validate your righteous anger! You may even attack the peaceful caribou who tries to get you to consider evidence-based information compiled by experts! Hyperbole and analogies aside, you DO NOT want to be the rabid wolf in this scenario. Rabid info-seeking wolves often succumb to confirmation bias. (Tweet This)
Real leadership requires that we rise above our own biases. (Tweet This) How we seek information affects how we interpret and present information and, if you are in a position of leadership, it is particularly important to maintain a high level of integrity when collecting and disseminating information. As a leader, you want to be fearless like a wolf; when it comes to foraging for information, you want to resemble the thoughtful caribou. Next week, we’ll talk about information seeking strategies and how to be an evidence-based-information-seeking caribou.