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Bias is in the eye, and heart, of the beholder

Bias is in the eye, and heart, of the beholder

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Letters accusing The Eagle of bias are not uncommon on the Opinions page. Some detect a liberal bias, others claim the newspaper leans right. Regardless of the perceived direction of tilt, what is meant is that the publication deliberately and consciously presents articles favoring one political persuasion over another. It’s unlikely many outraged letter writers realize that what they see as The Eagle’s conscious bias may well instead reflect one or more of their own unconscious biases.

Like dark matter in the physical universe, in the mental and intellectual cosmos, the realm of unconscious or implicit bias far exceeds that of the kind more easily exposed, if often mistakenly. It influences our perceptions, our thinking and our judgment. We’re all vulnerable to it and if you believe you’re not, chances are you’re more susceptible than most.

We can’t escape it, but by becoming aware of its influence we may mitigate the possibility that our hidden biases, logical flaws and undeveloped critical thinking skills might be manipulated by bad actors for their own purposes.

Psychologists have identified scores of what might be termed dark biases, flawed patterns of thinking that lurk beneath the level of consciousness. Perhaps the most prevalent is the confirmation bias. It works like this: if you believe The Eagle to be a tool of the liberal elite, part of the scurrilous “mainstream media,” you will find ample instances to confirm that belief while ignoring all contrary evidence. Similarly, if you believe a certain group is plotting to destroy America, your mind selectively will cull the news to reinforce that belief, oblivious to facts which prove otherwise.

The Recency Bias inclines us to give more weight to what happened today than last month. A conservative article in today’s Eagle far outweighs a liberal one we barely remember from a week ago and therefore seems stronger evidence our local newspaper is a right-wing propaganda organ.

What’s known as the Affect Heuristic describes the human tendency for a strong positive or negative emotional reaction to overrule reason. It’s why personal anecdotes seem to carry more impact than dry statistics. Someone telling you, “I drank peanut oil daily and never caught

COVID-19” hits harder than “a dozen studies found peanut oil ineffective.”

It also explains why political rallies feature personal stories: Mary telling of her assault by an illegal immigrant or Jose’s tale of becoming a neurosurgeon despite being undocumented. More dramatically, it’s why a cellphone video propels outraged marchers into the streets.

The Law of Small Numbers is a statistical quirk often exploited by opinion writers to persuade readers that facts support their view of things. For example, you might read that small schools provide a better education because statistically they produce a higher percentage of high-achieving students. Although that’s true, it’s misleading because small schools also produce a high percentage of low-achieving students. How can this be? Easy. 25 high or low achieving students represent 5% of a school with 500 students, but a much smaller percentage of a school with 4,000 kids. Most students are average, regardless of school size. It’s just that in small schools, outliers stand out.

Framing Effects distort our judgment because of how facts are presented. Given a choice between a product that’s 5% fat or one that’s touted as 95% fat-free, shoppers overwhelmingly choose the latter. It just sounds better even though we know the products are identical.

These implicit biases don’t mean people are stupid. We live in an age of information overload. Most of us are busy earning a living and caring for our family. With a limited amount of time to evaluate the news fully, opinions and advertising that assault us every waking hour, our minds take shortcuts. That’s what implicit biases are: mental shortcuts. Unfortunately, they aren’t always pathways to clear understanding.

Too often they lead to a distorted worldview which becomes the lens through which we see virtually everything. We judge right and wrong, friend and enemy based on consistency with our own warped worldview.

In today’s hyperpartisan environment enemies and explicit bias may seem everywhere, a perception stoked by those who seek to profit financially or politically by pushing fear and anger, addicting the unwary to the adrenalin rush of calls to battle imagined diabolical forces arrayed against the righteous.

Moreover, there’s a certain warm comfort that comes from avoiding the risk that thoughtful analysis of complex issues might shatter our fundamental assumptions and long-held opinions. Better to live within a pleasant illusion, some think, than confront what Al Gore famously referred to as an inconvenient truth?

Is The Eagle biased? I think not, but only The Shadow knows what lurks in the hearts of editors and publishers.

What I am sure of is that consciously or not, you and I are biased, often to our own detriment.

Tom Kiske is a local author and businessman. He can be reached at kisje1one@yahoo.com.

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