Leading ourselves up the garden path – confirmation bias and Croydon

By - Tuesday 13th January, 2015

A recent controversy made Robert Ward look for answers. Finding none from either side, he was dismayed to see that everyone believed them anyway

A real, not metaphorical, garden path.
Photo public domain.

A recent Twitter conversation with fellow Croydonian David White and an unknown person in Cumbria brought me up against my old enemy: confirmation bias. It may not sound like a formidable opponent, but a formidable opponent it is. It lies at the root of many a heated argument, or worse. It is part of what makes us human, but not the best part.

My Twitter exchange began with David posting a tweet suggesting that a crowded train journey supported his view that nationalisation is the best solution. As a free marketer I responded with, I have to admit, a somewhat sarcastic reference to the performance of publicly owned industries, as well as a link to a report showing the virtues of rail franchises. He in turn asked if I had reviewed the performance of the publicly managed East Coast route. An anonymous Cumbrian intervened with links to a trade union press release.

I decided to do some analysis. Not easy – the trade union site’s link to supporting information was broken. Such links are often broken; they are there not to illuminate, but to give an aura of credibility. Most of us have made up our mind already, few bother to look deeper. This is when I was reminded of my old foe, confirmation bias.

Few understand the mechanisms of climate change, yet most people have made up their minds

In a nutshell, we often have to make judgements with little information; so far, so good. The problem comes that when we acquire more information we interpret it in a way that supports our already held opinion. New information contradicting this opinion is interpreted as the opposite or we find excuses to discount it. Ever tried arguing with a conspiracy theorist?

Emotionally charged issues and deeply entrenched beliefs magnify the effect – think guns in the United States. More generally, let’s take climate change. Few understand the mechanisms of climate change, the complexities of climate modelling and the sheer volume of data; yet most people have made up their minds on whether they do or do not ‘believe’ in climate change. More information changes opinions not one iota.

The bias has even led to war. The ingrained belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction led intelligence analysts to regard questionable information from unreliable informants as conclusive whilst ignoring contrary evidence, leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Political speeches can feel like point scoring rather than a means to inform the voters

Lobby groups and politicians use our confirmation bias to manipulate us. Their aim is to get us to accept their version of the key issues and solutions. Think immigration or fracking. Once we’ve bought in, our confirmation bias helps keep us there.

We can also look to the sometimes frustrating dialogue between our Croydon politicians. I am of the view that our candidates from the major parties are honourable people, intent on doing their best for the people of Croydon. Unfortunately, their speeches can feel like point scoring rather than a means to inform the voters. But might this have an element of confirmation bias?

When Steve Reed sees an issue, as a Labour Party politician his instinct is for intervention by the state as a preferred solution. Gavin Barwell, on the other hand, from a party whose instinct is for market solutions, will see intervention as a remedy of last resort. Is it any wonder then that Steve sees the virtues of landlord licensing whereas Gavin sees the pitfalls? Their observed behaviour of selective quotation of figures may not entirely be point scoring in the political prize fight, but partly that they give greater weighting to different evidence. This does not help the electorate’s thirst for meaningful dialogue, but is perhaps the nature of the beast.

I fear as we approach the general election we will see more – not less – of this. Both major parties are pursuing a strategy of consolidating their natural supporters, and seeking to draw in a few others with tactical manoeuvres. Rather like two teams packing their defence to play out a nil-nil draw and hoping to win the penalty shoot out. The election campaign could be an unenlightening dialogue of the deaf.

Once in a while look in the mirror and ask yourself “is it just possible that I could be completely wrong?”

This may also explain the current resilience of the UKIP vote, in Croydon personified by Winston McKenzie. Incidents that would sink any other party seem to have little or no effect on UKIP. Their supporters see these incidents differently, not as manifestations of anything amiss with UKIP, but as confirming the wrong-headedness of others.

Do we have any defence to offset our weakness? The first rule is to get good information, review it critically and analyse it objectively. Secondly and most powerfully, once in a while look in the mirror and ask yourself “is it just possible that I could be completely wrong?” If you rarely if ever answer yes, you probably need to think harder.

So, back to whether the East Coast line is better privately or publicly owned. The report sponsored by the train operators presented convincing plots but no critical analysis of the underlying figures, the trades union sponsored report was a very lengthy polemic. Unfortunately, therefore, I am still none the wiser – but at least now I know that I don’t know.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Anne Giles

    Wonderful article. I, too, must confess that I don’t know either.

  • John Gass

    With particular regard to politics, it’s a shame when multiple, entirely unconnected, issues get bundled up together and argued over in an almost tribal way. I think one could almost invent a new topic or situation and accurately predict how people would judge it, based entirely on their political allegiances. Perhaps young people often struggle to engage with politics precisely because their views haven’t yet become entrenched and, as a consequence, they see party politicking for the superficial, them-against-us, game it is.