Nicholas Kristof writes in today's NY Times about how bias can affect perception:
Psychologists showed a film clip of the football game to groups of students at each college and asked them to act as unbiased referees and note every instance of cheating. The results were striking. Each group, watching the same clip, was convinced that the other side had cheated worse — and this was not deliberate bias or just for show.
“Their eyes were taking in the same game, but their brains seemed to be processing the events in two distinct ways,” Farhad Manjoo writes in his terrific new book, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.” It’s the best political book so far this year.
The title of the cited book is certainly intriguing; I'll have to look into it.
Mr. Manjoo cites a more recent study by Stanford University psychologists of students who either favored or opposed capital punishment. The students were shown the same two studies: one suggested that executions have a deterrent effect that reduces subsequent murders, and the other doubted that.
Whatever their stance, the students found the study that supported their position to be well-conducted and persuasive and the other one to be profoundly flawed.
“That led to a funny result,” Mr. Manjoo writes. “People in the study became polarized.”
A fair reading of the two studies might have led the students to question whether any strong conclusions could be drawn about deterrence, and thus to tone down their views on the death penalty. But the opposite happened. Students on each side accepted the evidence that conformed to their original views while rejecting the contrary evidence — and so afterward students on both sides were more passionate and confident than ever of their views.
In other words, don't confuse me with the facts, my mind's already made up. Hmm... that sounds like some of the religious folks I know ....
You might think that people would have this tendency no matter what their ideology. And you would be wrong:
This resistance to information that doesn’t mesh with our preconceived beliefs afflicts both liberals and conservatives, but a raft of studies shows that it is a particular problem with conservatives. For example, when voters receive mailings offering them free pamphlets on various political topics, liberals show some interest in getting conservative views. In contrast, conservatives seek only those pamphlets that echo their own views.
Likewise, liberal blogs overwhelmingly link to other liberal blogs or news sources. But with conservative blogs, the tendency is much more pronounced; it is almost a sealed universe.
I've been a lifelong Republican, going back to elementary school, when I wanted to put a Goldwater sticker on my parents' car (they said no).
Lately, though, I've been thinking of myself as an independent, for reasons more or less along the lines Kristof describes. Fidelity to the First Commandment calls for us to face the facts; too many of today's so-called conservatives aren't willing to do that.