This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The human brain is perhaps the greatest product of evolution. With harmony it manages the biological processes that keep us alive, produces consciousness, turns light energy into the experience of color and manufactures the experience of "boom" when a tree falls in the forest.
But that's only the beginning. Weighing about three pounds in the average adult and composed of 90 percent water, this organ accomplishes reasoning, facilitates problem solving, allows us to communicate with the miracle that is language and stores and retrieves countless pieces of information. It is the human brain that permits a pathetically weak species to thrive and dominate the harsh landscape that is earth.
But nothing is perfect. Because the brain is charged with so many tasks, it attempts to conserve energy and resources. The brain seeks simplicity, predictability when it doesn't exist and often chooses short cuts in its work. This results in a host of cognitive or thinking errors that plague all humans. As a result, our perceptions are sometimes faulty and inaccurate. This is not a minor matter. Man's inability to coexist and live in harmony with fellow humans at times is fueled by thinking errors.
A variety of thinking errors have been identified and studied. Perhaps the most insidious is called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to distort our perception of experience so that it is consistent with our attitudes. The brain becomes blind to or ignores information that is inconsistent with our world view and selectively attends to or notices information that supports our beliefs.
For example, if I harbor the belief that teens are reckless and impulsive drivers, my brain will notice or attend to examples of teens driving dangerously while ignoring the countless examples of safe driving practiced by adolescents.
If I endorse the view that Republicans are cold-hearted money grabbers while Democrats are compassionate problem solvers, my brain will seek out congruent observations. We see what we believe. The brain automatically, independent of our intention, filters information to be consistent with our attitudes. No wonder we are sometimes stubbornly persistent in our beliefs.
A belief that Muslim Americans are likely terrorists is fueled by the rare examples of Muslim terrorists cited in the media. Sadly, the individual with this bias will be blind to the excellent educational achievement of American Muslims and their productive integration into American society.
Confirmation bias maintains many social ills. Racism, that pernicious human attribute that is essentially found in all societies, is an obvious example. So are sexism, religious bigotry, social class stereotypes and ageism, the set of stereotypes we hold about a given age group. We even become rigid in our loyalty to political parties and dysfunctionally see them in "us" and "them" terms.
So we come hard wired to engage in some dysfunctional, faulty thinking. Our overworked brains push us to perceive experience in uniform, simple, often invalid ways.
What are we to do? The first response is to know thine enemy. Becoming aware that our brains seek to perceive harmony, even when it does not exist, is vital. So armed, the individual is alert to think twice and avoid quick judgments and simple solutions.
Likewise, education probably provides some methods to manage this human foible. The liberally educated individual is broadly knowledgeable and may be less likely to be tricked by confirmation bias as he/she recognizes the faulty thinking. Efforts to promote critical thinking in educational curricula may be protective for thinking errors in general and confirmation bias specifically. Critical thinking requires the student to question the validity of information through the use of reasoning and logic.
Such questioning makes it more likely that the individual will identify faulty perceptions offered by a brain seeking economy. In addition, efforts in our schools to expose students to the diversity of cultures that make our nation so special may temper confirmation bias. The culturally sensitive student honors the variety of methods different cultures employ to meet social needs. Finally, many of us actively choose information sources that offer a view that is in alignment with our own.
The brain appreciates such harmony. Conservatives read the Wall Street Journal while liberals choose the Washington Post. This tunnel-vision approach likely hardens our viewpoint and provides a rich environment in which confirmation bias flourishes.
John M. Seaman, Ph.D., is a retired school psychologist and an adjunct professor of psychology at Salt Lake Community College.