THE BLOG
10/17/2012 08:51 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Bias Always Hurts the One You Love

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The issue of bias is so all pervasive that I chose it as the first topic of discussion on my Critical Voter podcast that teaches how to use the 2012 Presidential election to learn practical critical thinking skills.

The reason bias came before more traditional critical thinking subjects such as logic, argumentation and rhetoric is that it tends to play havoc with all of those other elements and techniques that are supposed to fuel critical thought.

For example, while logic can do just fine talking about A's being B's, or Dogs not being Cats in the classroom, in the real world logic requires accurate premises to be effective. And if our biases lead us to pump untrue facts or questionable assertions into our logical arguments, this garbage in will certainly lead to garbage out. Similarly, an argument that might seem perfectly reasonable to you and someone who shares your biases may seem invalid or unsound to someone not sharing those beliefs.

Similarly, the goal of any argument is to persuade a specific audience. But if we start with the assumption that everyone listening thinks like us (unless they're morons), we are likely to create arguments that don't convince and may even alienate the very people we should be trying to persuade.

Most political discussions of bias focus on the alleged bias of particular institutions (notably the media) or how group classifications (such as race, nationality and gender) come loaded with biases we need to understand in order to communicate with people outside such groups.

But as J. Pierpont Finch would put it, "I believe there's one great club that all of us are in...", a Brotherhood of Man united in a set of biases, called "cognitive biases" that are hard wired into each and every one of us.

While there are actually dozens of such cognitive biases, the most important one we encounter as political animals is confirmation bias: the tendency to accept as true those statements, facts and arguments that conform to what we already believe, and challenge or reject those that do not fit the storylines already established in our own heads.

This confirmation bias makes perfect sense in the context of a brain which takes in sensory data, tries to establish patterns with it, and then fits those data and patterns into stories which are very difficult to dislodge once established. And in our current fragmented media age, it has become too easy to automate our data intake, filtering out in advance any information that does not fit pre-existing beliefs.

Now bias does provide political advantage in terms of generating the enthusiasm and dedication that fuels a campaign. But the same biases which make us firm believers can also cause us to harm the very candidates, parties and causes we claim to champion.

To site just one example, in 1988 I was a big Gary Hart supporter who (having gone through the excitement of his nearly successful insurgent campaign in 1984) was ready to follow his banner, even if that involved rejecting accusations of extramarital affairs as stuff and nonsense cooked up by political rivals. And had enough biased people like me agreed to ignore these facts to the point where Hart won the nomination, exposure during a general election would have destroyed my party's chances for success.

To site a more recent example, last week I talked about how biases regarding how we saw President Obama (as a master orator) and his opponent (who lacked the President's persuasive powers) prevented us from understanding how the debate structure might favor Mitt Romney's rhetorical strengths (since, as far as most people were concerned, he didn't have any).

But had the Obama campaign gotten past its own confirmation biases regard the talents of both their man and his opponent, they could have spent the weeks before the debate trying to manage expectations so that a poor debate performance would be perceived as a draw, and a good one broadcast as a triumph.

I bring this up since the latest central point of the Democratic campaign (that Mitt Romney is inconsistent in his political statements, and is thus untrustworthy) might not be that strong a persuasive argument outside the circle of those already disposed to dislike and distrust the Republican candidate (or Republicans in general).

I provide a more impartial look at the argument underlying this accusation of dishonesty here (one which uses something called a Toulmin diagram to isolate the strengths and weaknesses in an argument).

So before deciding that a campaign based on accusations of dishonesty must work (since you and everyone around you know these accusations to be true), it might be worth checking your own biases at the door, at least long enough to ensure they are not leading you, your cause and your candidate over another cliff.