Lately we have been hearing a lot about “Confirmation Bias,” believing things that support what we already believe and rejecting things that don’t – i.e. believing whatever we want to believe. The research indicates not only that we believe whatever we want, but also that having evidence presented that challenges our view, rather than weakening our belief, makes us cling to it even more.
Long ago in a college psychology class, I learned of a certain man and woman who were engaged and waiting until after marriage to have sex. When the woman unexpectedly became pregnant, her fiancé couldn’t face the truth and suffered a psychotic reaction. He convinced himself that his fiancé was Mary, the baby was Jesus, and he was Joseph. Things like this are called “defense mechanisms”; they defend us from the truth.
I have a friend, a retired psychologist, who argues that Confirmation Bias is not a “mental problem.” Well, if it isn’t a mental problem to believe in 2016, as some do, that the earth is flat, regardless of massive contradictory evidence, then the man mentioned above who believes he’s Joseph doesn’t have a mental problem, either. If an engineer is asked to design a can that will hold three more ounces of tomato soup than fits in the old can, he doesn’t create a can with fantasy dimensions he thinks are nice. And if for some reason he did, when all the soup wouldn’t fit or it wouldn’t fill the can, he wouldn’t believe even more strongly that the can was the right size. He knows that would be crazy.
It seems that in the physical/practical world we have some objectivity, some connection to reality, some willingness to adapt when facts challenge our views. It’s easy to determine whether the soup fits in the can or not. Why wasn’t it just as easy to see that Jim Crow was wrong? Defense mechanisms? Well, other than the engineer/designer, no one is much affected by the success or failure of the newly created soup can. However, when slavery was ended, Southern white people lost their minds (see Joseph above) and started spouting all sorts of insane distortions to defend against their fear.
When the Civil Rights movement got underway here in “the Land of the Free” where “All men are created equal,” everything from the Bible to genetics – including hateful language, intimidation, and violence – was brought to bear in resistance to equality and justice for black Americans.
I’m 71 years old; I was there and witnessed it. How is that any different from the psychotic defense used by the cuckolded fiancé? If one thinks he’s Napoleon, we say he’s insane. What do we call the belief that lynching black men – which was performed with the air of a carnival and accepted unquestioningly into the 1960s – is justified and positive? Neither Christian teaching nor official “American values” had any affect on segregationists, except to strengthen their resolve.
To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character, Col. Jessep, we can’t handle the truth. At least we “grown-ups” can’t. We apparently cannot adapt to a changing world; if we are to be saved, we will be saved by our young people.
This is an ancient observation, one illustrated in Exodus. The adult Israelites had lived as slaves and had grown up with a slave mentality and slave expectations. They weren’t even sure they wanted to leave the service of Pharaoh. When they did finally leave, they constantly expressed fear and a lack of confidence; they behaved like slaves – not a free, independent people. They wandered in the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years. Why? A boy scout making 20 miles a day could hike from Egypt to Canaan in less than three weeks. So why the 40 years? To let the Confirmation Biased older generation die off and be replaced with strong, independent, warrior-minded Israelites. After all, the Promised Land was already occupied by people who would not peacefully agree to leave.
So, there you are. Does it have to be this way? Isn’t it obvious that the earth isn’t flat, that racism is wrong, that “Freedom of Religion” doesn’t allow abuse of gays or non-Christians, that killing people for God is insane, that we are contributing to the heating of the earth, that Mexico won’t pay for the wall, etc., etc., etc.?
Does it have to be this way? I don’t know. I would like to think that human beings could handle the truths that facts often impose on what we would rather believe instead. I’d like to believe we can handle the truth, but the facts indicate otherwise.
This article originally appeared on The Pickaway News Journal