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Mel Graykin: Erring on the side of happiness



For the Monitor
Thursday, March 23, 2017

Confirmation bias: The tendency to focus on anything that confirms one’s convictions and disregards any evidence to the contrary.

It’s a very common way of thinking; most of us do it. We fool ourselves that way. We get out of bed in a low mood and tell ourselves that this is going to be a bad day. All day long we leap on anything negative as proof that we were right. Anything good tends to be overlooked. Objectively, every day is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant in various amounts. But our mindset can skew our perceptions.

If you take confirmation bias into consideration, the current abysmal political climate begins to make a bit more sense. Say someone is convinced that Muslims are dangerous. They are going to leap upon every bit of anti-American jihadist rhetoric, every belligerent passage from the Quran, every news story about an attack or threat. They will seek out authorities (politicians, media personalities) who confirm their prejudice. And they will dismiss as irrelevant the many examples of peaceful coexistence and good deeds, for example, the Muslims who sent good wishes and donated funds in the wake of the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. Muslim activist Tarek El-Messidi said, “I hope our Muslim community ... will continue to stand with our Jewish cousins to fight this type of hatred and bigotry.”

Oh sure, but think of all the Islamic terrorists.

Bigots don’t think they are being bigoted. They think they are being realistic. They think the rest of us are fools for ignoring the facts. It is futile to engage a bigot in an argument attempting to convince them they are wrong. They are packing an arsenal of examples of why they are right.

We liberals likely suffer from a similar confirmation bias. It’s very difficult to recognize one’s prejudices from the inside. We tend to leap upon examples of the goodness of people, the benefits of cooperation, the superiority of tolerance and trust in human relations. We would prefer to welcome those who are different from us, work with them, create communities with them and take the risk that we’ll have to deal with a few bad apples. We calculate that the overall happiness this policy generates is worth the problems that might arise. Yes, we might be safer if we focus on isolating ourselves and arming ourselves to the teeth, treating every stranger with suspicion. But our lives would be much the poorer for it.

To go back to my opening example, liberals are a bit like the person who wakes up in a good mood and decides that this is going to be a good day. All day long they focus on what confirms their prejudice that the day is good, dismissing examples to the contrary. Perhaps this optimistic attitude will sometimes lead to disappointment. But on the whole, I think I’d prefer to err on the side of happiness. I don’t want a world view that requires me to build walls, carry guns, ruthlessly compete with my fellows and dismiss the unfortunate as losers to whom I have no responsibility.

If I’m to be biased, let it be on the side of compassion, trust and tolerance.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield, and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)