‘Confirmation bias,’ a fancy term for my way or the highway

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Because the world changes so fast now, I often have the feeling that I’m getting behinder and behinder. Sometimes I think, “So what?” And other times I try to catch up. In desperation with my most despised but most necessary device – my computer – I made a pact with myself to learn each day one new thing, however small, about my computer; in this way I could stay relatively current.

The problem has always been that I was willing to learn one new thing a day but never in the realm of technology, the part of my life that often curdles my calm and suggests that I drop my computer on the floor and toss my iPhone out the window. If I didn’t at least try to overcome my bias, I would become increasingly confused with the computer that is my livelihood. However, learning one new thing once a week about my electronic devices would have to be my speed. The other six days I could learn one new thing about anything else, all other things in the world being actually interesting.

Changing my mind in such a way that I change my behavior does not come easily. When I read about “confirmation bias,” which basically means that humans don’t like change and that we like to assemble facts that support what we already know, I recognized that I merely justify what I already know when I refuse to learn an easier way to use my computer. As the saying goes, my way or the highway.

My bias is that computers are built to confuse, and I am already easily confused. The bias also contains that old problem for me, that any entity telling me what to do is trying to control me, and I will do the opposite, even if it is not good for me. Another of my biases is that I am basically non-techy, so I will never understand it anyway and why try.
What is true is that if I took the time to learn a thing or two about this device, I would be less apt to accuse the computer of annoying me on purpose. I could learn a few tricks of the trade rather than always thinking I don’t have the time to assimilate the odd language of the machine and its directives translated from a foreign tongue.

Because we humans have always been biased animals, I get it that I may never be completely rational, that I may always be working with “confirmation bias.” But because of another relatively new study of our behavior and our physicality, I know that my brain is plastic, pliable – my brain can change! This is a eureka bit of knowledge that I intend to concentrate on – why remain intractable about an important part of my life when I can change my mind and live a happier existence, no longer ticked off at a machine that hides things from me on purpose, refuses to retrieve things that I never saved in the first place and goes black just often enough to scare me witless because maybe I’m losing everything I just wrote?

“Confirmation bias” means I’ll believe what I’ve always believed, to hell with facts. (Does this remind you of anyone you know or know of? Read about in the news? See giving speeches on TV?) “Confirmation bias” means justifying that which might be wrong. “Confirmation bias” means we don’t like change, especially if it is thrust upon us. “Plasticity of the brain” means there is hope.

We can change our minds and survive. We can look at our biases and perhaps realize that we made a bad decision here and there, so let’s fess up, agree with ourselves that we don’t have to hang on to wrongheadedness. Sometimes “confirmation bias” is called “myside bias.” That’s a telling phrase.

There is a pervasive belief right now that the country, even the whole world, is going to hell in a handbasket. Looks that way, sounds that way, the news reaffirms it minute by minute. I’m addressing my many “myside biases” about this as well as about my relationship with my computer because, frankly, I’m tired of the drama. Maybe I can just be happy. Maybe I can learn to love my computer. And know that however bad things look, they, the world, and I, can change.

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