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On Confirmation Bias, or The Tyranny of Homophily

Cross-posted with permission from Clips and Phrases

My great uncle is a brilliant and kind man who reads anything and everything he can get his hands on, then recaps it with such articulate precision and grace you’d think he’d done his doctorate on that book. And he seeks out information on subjects with which he has zero familiarity in order to be able to make connections across disciplines, and play with those connections the way most of us twiddle with our phones until something cool happens.

“I like to read people I disagree with,” he once told me. I asked him what he was currently reading. It was Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith.” My uncle is one of the most devout atheists I know, so I asked him, “Then why are you reading Harris?”

He paused.

“I want to see if his arguments are the same as mine,” he replied.

I don’t think I will ever see my uncle pick up a copy of something by Heschel or Augustine or any theological thinker talking about faith. Even this wildly knowledgeable seeker, at heart – just like me, just like any of us – craves validation. It sounds like something Stephen Colbert would say, but we want to hear other people say what we think.

At yesterday’s Jewish Futures Conference, I was re-introduced to the term “confirmation bias,” or people’s tendency to seek out information or hypotheses that confirm what we already believe to be true about the world. I heard this term and was struck to the bones. Because I am guilty, guilty, guilty.

To be fair, confirmation bias is not always a bad thing. There’s often good reason to surround yourself with supportive voices. That’s part of what builds community. That’s what gets people through hard times. That’s what makes us feel safe. All good things.

But there’s real danger in confirmation bias: one can fall subject to the tyranny of homophily.

Homophily is a term that comes out of network theory which essentially means “birds of a feather flock together.” Like (-minded) people tend to group together. And then you end up with situations like this.

Image

 

This is a network map of the political blogosphere from several years ago, indicating which blogs representing which parties linked (literally and metaphorically) to one another.

See the problem? These blogs, theoretically representative of the political conversation in the country writ large, aren’t breaking out of their echo chambers. They suffer from a bad case of homophily, and therefore confirmation bias, and the conversation becomes increasingly polarized.

The danger of confirmation bias is not just in governing a ridiculously diverse country that needs every voice to engage with one another, but in spurring innovation. As I see it, there are three basic definitions of innovation: 1) something entirely new that’s never existed before (“good luck with that,” says Kohelet); 2) something that already exists put into a new context (for instance, the movie Aliens was pitched as “Jaws in space”), and 3) two old ideas put together to make something new (“drive-through” + “bank” = drive through banking).

So, what happens when those two old ideas never get a chance to meet? Or we don’t learn about other contexts, and can’t drag those ideas into our own, or share ours with others?

Nothing. The stifling tyranny of homophily. We curl in on ourselves and begin to wither.

Breaking out of confirmation bias is hard, and scary. It leaves us raw and vulnerable. But, I’m learning, that’s what makes humans who we are.

My baby is about four months old right now, and trying and failing and learning all kinds of things. It’s thrilling, but it can also be dangerous for him. He’s really, really vulnerable and needs lots of love and attention to help him navigate this big crazy world my husband and I brought him into. But if he had been born and, like many other animals, could already walk and feed himself and do everything he needed to do to survive, he would never learn how to learn. And that’s what makes us different. That’s what makes us human.

Breaking out of confirmation bias and resisting homophily means we have to make ourselves more like my son. Learning to learn, learning to unlearn. Being more curious, and more foolish, perhaps. Being unabashedly braver through embracing our own vulnerability.

I’m not sure it’s something I’m ready to do – it’s much more comfortable to stick with what I know and hear from people who make me feel good about that – but I know it’s something I need to do, because that’s how things change and get better. The question now is how.

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