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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Confirmation Bias… Trigger Warning!

Written by: on May 16, 2019

I have a bad habit.  I am one of those people who share news stories and articles that often have an underlying message attached.  For example, I sent my brother-in-law an article from the Mayo Clinic entitled, “Walking: Trim Your Waistline, Improve Your Health”.[1]  I have sent my wife numerous articles with encouraging lines like “Running may be the single most effective exercise to increase life expectancy.”[2]  I sometimes send my more home-bound friends helpful pieces with titles like “Why Wouldn’t You Travel, When There Are So Many Benefits to Traveling?!”.[3]

Part of what is at work in these exchanges is that I have a kind of confirmation bias, where when I read something that resonates with what I already believe, think or do, I see it as really worthwhile and true. I would never share an article that claims that people should run less, or eat worse, or stop exploring new cultures. That would go against my core beliefs!

Confirmation bias is alive and well in American society in 2019.  It is something that we all have within us and that is contributing to our polarized society, especially when it comes to political hot-topics.  In a way, the new book by authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, is a book that fits quite well our current times.

The backbone of the book is the idea that there are “three Great Untruths” that are the culprits behind much of the politicized, divided and fearful age in which we live.  The authors describe these three “untruths” as, What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, always trust your feelings, and life is a battle between good and evil people.[4]

The obvious rejoinder to each of these three is that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (so, bad things will happen, but you need to be resilient), “don’t always trust your feelings” (so, it isn’t always about how you feel), and “everybody has both good and bad within them” (so, people are complicated, give them some grace). These “comebacks” are just my own initial thoughts as I read the book.  This seems to be the point that the authors are making.  That the times in which we live get things backward, or have them off-center, and that there is a more nuanced and even “classical” way of thinking about the human condition and our place within the world.

According to the authors, some of the symptoms of the problems of our age include: rising rates of teen depression and anxiety, rise of overprotective or ‘helicopter’ parenting and the decline of free play[5], as well as college campuses boiling over with anger, as well as fragility. They write, “The rising political polarization in the United States, in which universities are increasingly seen as bastions of the left, has led to an increase in hostility and harassment from some off-campus right-wing individuals and groups.”[6]  This story is set within the larger context of the United States in the years since 2012, where rising political polarization is simply part of the landscape of the country.

Indeed, in a New York Times essay, a Middlebury College professor who was given a concussion by a crowd of angry protesters on a college campus puts it this way, “in the days after the violence, some have spun this story as one about what’s wrong with elite colleges and universities, our coddles youth or intolerant liberalism. Those analyses are incomplete. Political life and discourse in the United States is at a boiling point, and nowhere is the reaction to that more heightened than on college campuses.”[7]

This is another way of saying that we live in the age of Trump.  But in truth, the age of Trump has followed closely on the heels of the Obama administration, which has set up a stark contrast between the two eras (rather than the usual theme of continuity, and continued progress in a certain direction that our country seeks to hold).

So, in the context of our country today, this book fits right in because it is sure to affirm the confirmation bias of about half the readers.  I found myself nodding along at certain sections, especially anything having to do with the importance of resilience, outdoor free-play, and how our orthodoxies can become rigid.  At the same time, there were parts of the book where I was shaking my head, mostly because I can think of those whose biases are sure to be affirmed by what was written.

As with all of the books that we read, I think about to whom I would recommend or share this book.  The truth is, that I would probably recommend this book to some of my more grumpy, frumpy, and pessimistic friends, and even then, it would only be with a grain of salt.

[1]“Walking: Trim Your Waistline, Improve Your Health,” Mayo Clinic, accessed May 16, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/walking/art-20046261.

[2]Gretchen Reynolds, “An Hour of Running May Add 7 Hours to Your Life,” New York Times, April 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/12/well/move/an-hour-of-running-may-add-seven-hours-to-your-life.html.

[3]“Why Wouldn’t You Travel When There Are So Many Benefits to Traveling?!,” Claim Compass, November 30, 2017, https://www.claimcompass.eu/blog/benefits-of-travelling/.

[4]Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 4.

[5]Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 126.

[6]Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 126.

[7]Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 127.

About the Author

Dave Watermulder

12 responses to “Confirmation Bias… Trigger Warning!”

  1. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Dave,
    We all love to be proven right and boy does it show with what we read and push to others. The idea shouldn’t be, as you stated within your opening, going against my core ideas is not something most want to do, but the quicker we learn to do that the better off we stand. My first professor in seminary said to the class on the first day “if your library does not have books in it you disagree with, you are incomplete”. Today that is truer than ever.

    Jason

  2. Great post, Dave!

    Interesting point. I never thought of that. I wonder how many of us subconsciously send articles to others with the presumption that they’ll be in agreement with the perspective and resonate with our views. Do you find that you try to assess the person’s interest first or share with the intention of converting their position?

    Thank you for pointing out, “At the same time, there were parts of the book where I was shaking my head, mostly because I can think of those whose biases are sure to be affirmed by what was written.” I agree. As much as they defended their views and ‘tried’ to paint the younger generations in a good light, they really just blamed others for the issues they see in the younger generations. Hence, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z are still the issue, but we’re not blamed for being this way. What are some changes you would have added to the text?

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Hi Colleen,
      Yep, definitely think “younger generations” are being put on blast by this book. In some ways, it is fair enough, and in others, it’s really kind of piling on.
      My thing with sending articles is that I try to think about things people will enjoy reading, or that resonate with a conversation we had had, or something I know about them. I don’t troll people usually, but I do intend what I send to largely have confluence with what they might be interested in.

  3. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Dave!

    Very interesting post. Loved the reminder of bias. So true!

    By the way, if I would have sent my wife an article like you did, I might have had to run away from her (grin).

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Jay– no kidding! I have gotten myself into plenty of trouble with her! Now, I have toned it down, so most of my health articles that I send are either super gentle (like, “take a walk around the block”) or go with something that she is trying out already. Gotta stay on the right side of the line! 🙂

  4. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Dave,

    You are right, confirmation bias is alive and well in the US. One only has to scan facebook for that to be confirmed.

    Having worked in higher education for more than 15 years I can attest to the changes in students that have come in the past several years and there is a measure of fragility that seems out of place. I am not convinced as many others might be that this has anything to do with the political climate in the US as this would not explain similarities in Canada or the UK.

    I know that when we brought our kids to the US after they spent the formative years in NZ we noticed a very different type of parenting and received many comments or other signs of frustration that we were more ‘hands off’ and let them figure things out type of parents. Certainly not what we found here in TN even though our kids fit perfectly in the age range talked about in the book.

    I think this fragility will also create some specific challenges for the church as they grow into adulthood and determine what place christian faith community will have in their lives as adults.

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks for this response, Dan. Yup, Facebook is one of those places where confirmation bias is on display daily. It’s out of control.

      I don’t know what to make of the fragility piece, but it certainly seems to be real. In a way, I just think that because of social media and being more connected with smart-phones, etc, it means that we have to work out our “stuff”, our problems and questions, and mess-ups, etc in a much more public space than before. I probably felt totally fragile at some points growing up (I did!), but I didn’t share that with a group of people, etc. So, I think part of it is just the role of technology in our lives these days.

  5. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Dave,

    I am wondering now, if we are a boiling point, and the worst of it is on the college campuses, it makes me afraid of what will happen in the next 5 years as this group of protesting kids enters the work force. Will we be able to adapt to lead them and ourselves well? And I get nervous for 30 years from now, when these same students are now the senators

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Kyle,
      No kidding, man… I think you are exactly right about that worry, and it is something that will be part of all levels and arenas of life.

  6. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Dave! Great blog! I so appreciated your perspective. It’s so funny because I wondered the same thing – who could I share this book with? It feels like an important text for the RIGHT person lol. I want to know more about the articles you share with friends and family – are they bait? or do you assume they will interest them? Thanks for highlighting the era of Trump and how the trajectory changed so rapidly from the Obama administration…we can only hope for the pendulum to balance out?

  7. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks, Jean,
    So, I usually don’t bait people with my articles– I try to think about what someone is interested in, or a conversation we had, or something that I know about them. If I come across something in that arena, I will send it. As for this book, there are people I know who would really like it– but, because I think it would only confirm their biases, I don’t want to send it to them. It just seems like a grumpy book to send to somebody, like “here’s what’s wrong with the kids today!” Anyway…

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