Bias is a bit like an autopilot that, once programmed, guides us along the most agreeable route to our predetermined opinions. It navigates away from the contrary and stops along the way only for those bits of information that make us feel good because it confirms our prejudices.
In social science, this tendency is call “confirmation bias.” Awareness of confirmation bias, sometimes called wishful thinking, provides truckloads of insight about how notoriously flimsy and unsupportable notions persist in political discourse. It follows then, that individuals/groups viewed as lacking objectivity as a core value rate poorly on any list of the “most trusted” – e.g., members of congress and lobbyists.
I hate to disappoint anyone, but wishful thinking is generously distributed without regard to political orientation. President John Kennedy acknowledged this universal frailty when he said we citizens tend to “…enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Wishful thinking seems firmly anchored within the political class and by extension the political organizations they represent. Thoughtful consideration of competing views that might compel change are resisted at all cost. Winston Churchill’s quip that “those who never change, never change anything” seems hauntingly applicable.
Thankfully, there are historical examples of enlightened leaders and organizations that have successfully employed discomforting thought and objective problem solving. Notable examples include President Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Army.
President Lincoln embraced discomforting thought and opposing viewpoints when staffing his wartime cabinet. He intentionally selected members based on qualifications and diversity of opinion irrespective of their politics. His selection of political rivals such as William Seward was considered by some as pure folly. Seward, Lincoln’s choice for Secretary of State, was well known for his oft and strident disagreements with the newly elected President. There is little wonder then why Lincoln’s cabinet room was often a discomforting place — a forum where battling viewpoints produced an objectivity that many believe helped save the Union. A measure of Lincoln’s leadership was his pursuit of insights derived from dissenting perspectives and an awareness (borne of humility) that he wasn’t always the smartest voice in the room.
The U.S. Army has fielded numerous exercises that demonstrate how competing views and objective analyses benefit results. One such exercise features a plane crash scenario requiring survivors to negotiate choices before making a long and hazardous trek overland to safety.
From a myriad of wreckage items each soldier must choose 10 items considered most critical for survival. Individual soldiers then explain their choices to the full group and then revise their lists based on what they’ve heard from others. From these individual lists a group consensus process produces a “consensus solution.”
The consensus solution is then compared with a field tested “school solution.” With great reliability group consensus solutions substantially outperform individual choices. Lesson learned: decision making benefits from differing opinions freely expressed within an objective decision-making environment.
In contrast to these examples, our national leaders seem fully comfortable within their respective echo chambers where conformance is required, political advantage not problem solving is the goal, and leadership is too often a matter of seniority rather than competence. Over time, those who retain a glimmer of objectivity (thought criminals in Orwellian lore) are systematically excluded, leaving only those willing to pledge unwavering loyalty to the prevailing “wishful thinking.” It’s no wonder then that when political delusions are re-enforced with demagoguery and name calling (e.g., Nazi, communist, racist, sexist, etc.) the door to constructive civil discourse is not only closed, it’s nailed shut.
Meanwhile, we citizens must struggle to find glimmers of reason in this milieu of thoughtlessness. Our best defense, not surprisingly, is objective thinking. We would be well served to take a cue from the scientific method. Like scientists, we must acknowledge that biases influence every stage of inquiry and left unaddressed will distort perceptions. And, like scientists, we are individually responsible for thorough consideration of both confirming and contradictory findings. Doing less makes us co-conspirators of those who believe that in the quest for political power, objective truth is optional.
Is Kennedy’s admonition about our tendency to avoid discomforting thought to be our epitaph — or, to paraphrase President Lincoln, will the “better angles of our nature” arrive in time to save us from ourselves once again?
Terry Oxley is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He is retired from the military and a communications career at Puget Sound Energy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org