Professors of Business Law, Craig and Linda Barkacs, Address Confirmation Bias in Polarizing Debates

Thursday, July 11, 2019TOPICS: Research

USD Professors of Business Law, Craig Barkacs and Linda Barkacs pose next to a statueFrom left to right, USD Professor of Business Law, Craig Barkacs; USD Professor of Business Law, Linda Barkacs
begin quoteThe reality is that our beliefs often dictate which facts we will accept.

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Measles and the Outbreak of Confirmation Bias

Addressing confirmation bias starts with seeking out additional information beyond what one immediately believes or trusts.

There have been over 700 confirmed cases of measles in 2019, the largest for any year since 2000, according to The New York Times. More than 360 of these cases have been in New York City alone, reigniting a local version of the national debate regarding the legality and ethicality of governments forcing vaccination in the name of greater public health.

The debate over mandated vaccinations has become particularly heated recently. Supporters of mandated vaccinations often paint the anti-vax crowd as uneducated or reckless. Those opposed to mandated immunizations argue they are being unfairly judged or blamed for holding alternative views. As the measles outbreak continues and individuals try to determine which view about mandated vaccinations is “right” or “wrong,” they often don’t realize just how much confirmation bias is impacting their stance and potentially clouding their judgement.

What Is Confirmation Bias?

All of us want to believe that our opinions are well thought out and based on facts and logic. To test this theory, researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a series of studies in 2005 and 2006 to determine whether facts have the power to change our minds. They discovered that when misinformed people were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. Not only did facts not cure misinformation, people often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. The reality is that our beliefs often dictate which facts we will accept.

Our brains are wired to seek consistency. As a result, people interpret information in a manner that reinforces their preexisting views and then form their opinions accordingly. If we believe something about the world, we are much more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. Unfortunately, no matter what new statistics, data, or pertinent information is released about the 2019 measles outbreak, individuals on both sides of the issue will construe the same information differently to buttress their previously stated positions. This simply deepens the divide.

Confirmation Bias and Harmful Labeling

In a courtroom, individuals holding adversarial viewpoints use facts and logic to present and support their arguments. In this sense, one might characterize adversarial viewpoints as “opinions.” The issue then becomes which viewpoint—or opinion—should prevail. Arguments advanced by adversaries are evaluated by an impartial judge or a jury of citizens who ultimately reach a ruling or verdict based on the strength of the evidence provided in support of the arguments. The upshot of this process is a determination that all opinions are not created equal.

Those engaging in confirmation bias do not operate in the same manner. There is no judge or jury to ultimately determine which side’s argument—or opinion—about mandated measles vaccinations is ultimately more credible and compelling. Impartiality is non-existent. The issue has become so polarized that individuals who are opposed to vaccinations are called anti-vaxers, judged not just for their beliefs, but who they are as people. This generates and perpetuates confirmation bias, as individuals are not willing to listen to other viewpoints, simply because they see the opposing group in a negative light.

We see a similar polarized partiality when looking at the abortion rights debate. Calling someone “pro-life” or “pro-choice” carries with it a host of other implications that paints those with competing perspectives as not just wrong, but also as terrible people. More and more labels are being used lazily to portray one’s ideological adversaries as the “other”—i.e., “otherizing,” as it were—to the point of creating the tribal camps more and more prevalent in our increasingly divided society. The viewpoints on both sides of the abortion rights debate are complex and irreconcilable, but simplistic dismissive labeling like this furthers and deepens confirmation bias and reduces impartiality and civil discourse. Under the purview of this destructive dynamic, those with opposing views may be seen as not only wrong, but wrong and stupid—and worthy of contempt.

Confirmation Bias and Due Process

In response to the measles outbreak, the New York City Health Department has implemented $1,000 fines for individuals identified as having measles and for the parents of unvaccinated children living within certain zip codes. Depending on one’s view of mandated vaccinations, that penalty can seem appropriate to the circumstances and nature of the outbreak, or reactionary and a slight against individual liberties.

Measures such as these, however, are the byproducts of procedural due process. Restated, due process is rooted in the notion of fundamental fairness. This means, in part, that aggrieved parties can seek their day in court. When policies or laws designed to protect the public good are adopted, those same policies or laws may be questioned or challenged. Anti-vaxers may feel that the $1,000 penalty, or any penalty, for failure to vaccinate against measles is a violation of their individual liberties. Due process allows those with this perspective to seek redress in the courts. Regardless of whether they win or lose, they are given an opportunity to use facts and logic to present and support their arguments. Our legal system does its best to rule in accordance with the evidence provided. Moreover, the same due process procedures are available to those who favor mandated vaccinations should their support be challenged in some way.

Addressing the Harms of Confirmation Bias

It’s important to realize that confirmation bias stems from the fact that we are all biased in some way or another. We may be biased towards certain people, geographic locations, or political beliefs. Biases aren’t necessarily harmful just on their own, but the repeated, unquestioned confirmation of them, intentional or not, can cause true harm on a larger level.

Addressing confirmation bias starts with seeking out additional information beyond what one immediately believes or trusts. This can be difficult, considering our thoughts and viewpoints are immediately shaped by who and what’s around us. Also, addressing confirmation bias involves actively acknowledging our biases on a regular, consistent level.

For the measles outbreak and the ongoing debate about the ethicality and legality of vaccinations, ultimately both sides will continue to disagree. This is normal and expected, but effective strides can only be achieved when groups look beyond an immediate validation of their own beliefs and consider what other perspectives can be derived from facts, logic, and evidence.


Renata Ramirez
(619) 260-4658