Monday, April 25, 2011

Cognitive Bias and the Blogosphere

We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.
-- Jewish proverb

FosterEema here with another guest post. This one is triggered by a class I've been taking. The subject matter of the class is unimportant, but we've spent some time talking about the subject of cognitive biases. In a nutshell, cognitive biases are unconscious biases that creep into our thinking. They're not malicious by nature, nor is the suggestion of a cognitive bias an attack on the other person. We ALL do this stuff, unless we're very conscious not to.

There are a large number of cognitive biases, but I want to talk about a few which I think lead to a lot of the chaos and drama I see in the foster/adoptive blogging community:
  • Confirmation Bias. A confirmation bias is a tendency for people to favor information which supports our preconceptions or beliefs. Because the human mind is highly tuned for pattern recognition, we tend to notice information which supports our beliefs more, and trust it more, than information which doesn't align with our beliefs. At the risk of being self-referential a bit, some of our readers have apparently decided that we abuse/neglect/hate Danielle, and they view everything we say as further proof of our bad faith. That's confirmation bias.
  • Disconfirmation Bias. The cognitive opposite of confirmation bias, a disconfirmation bias means that we expect a higher standard of evidence for claims that go against our preconceptions than we do for claims that support them. We've all seen bloggers who've been attacked for slights, real or imaginary. In many of these cases, the attackers cling to their belief, seizing on crumbs to support them, even in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary. ("Social Services declared the allegations unfounded," for example.) This is disconfirmation bias in action.
  • Fundamental Attribution Error. This kind of cognitive bias means that, when we're seeking to explain behaviors, we tend to favor personality-based explanations over situational explanations. That is, faced with a behavior we dislike ("my neighbor's not trimming the tree that hangs over my fence", we are more likely to view the behavior as caused by the other's personality defects ("she's an asshole") than to look for situational explanations ("she has arthritis and doesn't have anyone to help her cut the tree"). When we fall prey to fundamental attribution errors, our judgmental sides are given free reign to play and we lose the assumption of innocence.
There are other cognitive biases, of course, and I invite the interested reader to visit Wikipedia's article on the subject. However, I think these are the most common and relevant to the blogosphere. I believe that much of the drama we see in the blogging world arises from these cognitive biases, and that we should all strive to combat them as much as possible.

So, how do we do that? How do we overcome these cognitive biases? The key, I think, is to be aware of them. We need to be be aware of the natural traps our minds tend to fall into, and vigilant to stay out of the cognitive potholes. This is, of course, much easier said than done. But the effort is worth the pain and angst it spares everyone. To move past confirmation and disconfirmation biases means consciously giving all new information equal weight, whether it supports our viewpoints or not. To move past fundamental attribution errors, we need to train ourselves to look for situational explanations for behavior before - or instead of - looking for the character flaws in the other person.

Learning to move past these cognitive biases will, I think, cut down a lot of the needless sturm und drang that pervades the blogosphere. But it will also make us more aware, more perceptive, and more compassionate people. And that's all to the good.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting...I'm particularly bad w/ the 3rd one.


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