Have you ever wondered why students seem armed to the teeth with anecdotal evidence to counter almost everything sociology has to teach them? Why do they seem so resistant to accepting the lessons of sociology. I’m sure you’ve had a student who, despite mountains of empirical evidence and your best attempts to explain it to them, refuses to acknowledge that their view of the world is inaccurate. What’s up with that? Well, the answer is very complex, but the confirmation bias (and the fundamental attribution error discussed last week) can help us understand our students better and be more empathetic teachers.

The confirmation bias, simply defined, is the bias toward accepting information that confirms our worldview without critique while at the same time being overly critical of information that counters are preconceived notions of the world. This explains how students are drawn to and remember information or experiences that confirm their views. It also explains why some students are harshly critical or even prone to dismissing out of hand any evidence that counters their view of the world. The confirmation bias is behind stereotypes, discrimination, and the construction of our worldview*. There is actually new research that suggests that non-confirming evidence can actually “backfire” and strengthen a person’s commitment to their misconceptions (learn more about this by listening to this NPR Talk of the Nation episode)

To get the most bang for your buck, you should talk about the confirmation bias as early in your class as possible. Put a name on it and you are half way to overcoming it. After the bias has a name you can pull it out when a student seems to be suffering from it. I often say in my classes, “You seem unwilling to consider that this evidence is accurate. What would it mean if it was? Just for a moment pretend that it is accurate, how would that change the way you see things?”

I use Fox News and MSNBC as examples of the confirmation bias. These two news agencies channels are built on the confirmation bias. Most people who tune in to these channels find that it is an opportunity to learn why the way they see the world is right and to laugh at the stupid people on the other side of the argument. Does Fox News do a better job of eviscerating the liberal point of view? Is MSNBC less biased? All of these questions are beside the point, so please don’t send emails 🙂 The point is that these channels are self-affirming and that is their business strategy. I also use this as an opportunity to discuss how the split screen screaming talking heads is a poor model for social discourse and that our classroom discourse will not devolve into that.

So what? After you explain the confirmation bias to students, they may think this to themselves. So what that I am more critical of some info than I am of others. Some students may see a sociological discussion of the confirmation bias as being a “bleeding heart liberal” telling them they need to be considerate of others. In my experiences students with the most social privileges are the most likely to experience the self-inoculating logic. I find the best way to get students to buy in and to care about confirmation bias is to give them “real world” examples of its practical value. I tell them that when Napster and music file sharing blew up record executives were unwilling to see that the world wasn’t going to be buying music on plastic discs for much longer. They were unwilling to see the world as it was, to acknowledge that it had changed, and because they clung to their worldview they have seen a dramatic reduction in the profits and their need to exist. Having the courage to see the world as it is, to listen to voices that challenge us, to be willing to change your mind as new evidence emerges, is the key to be a successful person in any field, discipline or career.

Teaching our students how to locate empirical evidence and use it to refine their worldview is an essential skill regardless of their major. Sell them on this and they will buy into your class.

Teaching the confirmation bias can help your students learn sociology, but it can also help you be an empathetic teacher. It is too easy to say that students “simply don’t want to learn” or to blame their resistance on who they are (anyone see the fundamental attribution error at work here?). I believe that students, by in large, really want to learn. After we accept the confirmation bias is affecting our students, it is easier to empathize with their position and be patient.

*Yes, you suffer from it too and if you acknowledge and own this in front of your students they will be more likely to believe you and accept the gravity of this bias.