Confirmation Bias Drives Debate

Quick … how many Section 8 recipients live in Avalon? (The answer follows at the end of this post, but don’t cheat! Please read this all the way through.)

The New York Times recently published a really interesting (but dispiriting) op-ed about confirmation bias. The author, Cass Sunstein, makes the point that almost all of us are wired up to accept information that reinforces our pre-existing views, while filtering out information that contradicts those views. This tendency is so powerful that a presentation of seemingly even-handed facts and argumentation actually has the effect of polarizing opinions, rather than encouraging a healthier regard for competing perspectives.

There are many who believe (and I am one of them) that confirmation bias goes a long way to explaining the harsh divisions of modern politics. In fact, these days we not only filter the information we receive, we decide upfront that certain information won’t even make it to our filter. Conservatives watch Fox and listen to Rush. Liberals watch MSNBC and log on to Huffpost. And eventually we are living in different worlds, with conflicting sets of “objective” facts.

(I am writing about this as though I were some neutral observer, but I am probably just as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone else.)

Anyhow, I think this phenomenon may be most evident in the stubborn persistence of completely unfounded rumors: “Death Panels” in health care reform … President Obama’s birth certificate … secret treaties with the United Nations under the nefarious influence of ICLEI. If you are a hard core believer, whose worldview depends on these canards being true, then fact-based, objective evidence just won’t make it through your mental screen.

What does all this have to do with Avalon? Well, I got to thinking about how confirmation bias plays out in local affairs. And the best example I could come up with was the tale of Avalon and Section 8.

Ever since Avalon was constructed, many people have insisted that a substantial share of its residents receive Section 8 housing vouchers. I’ve heard folks speak of it in a casual, off-hand way, as though it were a commonly-accepted fact. I’ve heard other folks “swear” that they know “for sure” that a certain apartment is rented to a Section 8 tenant. For those who really dislike Avalon (or dislike the elected officials who supported the project) this Section 8 story has a “see, I told you so” appeal, because it suggests that Avalon failed in its purpose of attracting discretionary income to our downtown. Confirmation bias drives these critics to embrace the rumor — and then others who may be unbiased hear the rumor often enough that they simply accept it.

So, what’s the answer to my question at the top of this post? How many Section 8 recipients live in Avalon? The number is — drum roll, please — zero.

There never have been Section 8 recipients in Avalon. The rent levels are well beyond what a Section 8 certificate could carry. And the City’s development agreement with Avalon disallows housing subsidies.

For those who have insisted to me that they know “for sure” of Section 8 recipient residing in the building, I have had a standard answer: If you give me a name or an apartment number, and it checks out, I will personally pay you $1,000. Nobody has collected on that bet. But the rumor lives on to this day. A triumph of confirmation bias over truth.

This little local example is, of course, trivial compared to the big national debates that are distorted by the confirmation bias effect. Make no mistake, for our country — and for democracy generally — this is a real problem. Sunstein says that the most effective way to confront confirmation bias is to secure testimonials from unexpected and trusted sources. Maybe. But I think we all should also make a conscious effort to challenge our own assumptions.