#BlackLivesMatter, Racial Bias, and Confirmation Bias


Philando Castile.

Alton Sterling.

Sandra Bland.

Freddy Gray.

Michael Brown.

And so many more black people have been killed in encounters with police in America the last two years. Right now we are rightly talking about racial bias: implicit, learned biases that affect our understanding, perceptions, and actions below the level of our conscious awareness. Given the overwhelming statistical difference between white and black police stops and incarceration rates in America, racial bias clearly impacts our criminal justice system at every level.

What I don’t hear people talking about, though, is another kind of bias: confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a pernicious cognitive bias that leads us to seek out and privilege information that supports our beliefs and ignore or discount information that challenges our current views. The toughest thing about confirmation bias? It’s blinding us just at the moment we believe we are being most objective and rational.

In a classic study conducted at Stanford, students for and against capital punishment were asked to assess various scientific articles supporting or challenging the efficacy of the death penalty. As hypothesized students supporting capital punishment rated articles defending capital punishment as being more factual and believable. These students found articles skeptical of the death penalty to be biased and of poor quality. Students who were opposed to capital punishment, however, answered exactly the opposite. To them the articles that showed capital punishment to be ineffective were of the highest quality. These students found the articles defending the death penalty to be weak and poorly administered. What’s critical to note here is that the students honestly believed that the studies themselves were defective. They didn’t feel they were just stating their political opinion- they felt they were arguing what they perceived to be facts. http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=1981-05421-001

Worse, confirmation bias keeps us from even confronting information that might challenge our views in the first place. Our confirmation bias means we don’t even want to deal with information that calls into question our beliefs. Another classic study from 1967 divided smokers and non-smokers and Christians and non-Christians into separate groups. Study leaders created a simulated newspaper and then asked the participants to circle articles they were interested in reading. Perhaps not surprisingly, smokers did not circle articles that suggested smoking causes cancer and Christians didn’t want to waste their time on articles hinting that religion might be a sham. Of course non-smokers and non-Christians showed more interest in articles that were in line with their suspicions. Neither group wanted to even read articles that might call into question their deeply held beliefs. Those familiar with the theory of cognitive dissonance know that questioning deeply held beliefs is painful in a measurable way. http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2005-11104-001

This brings me to today. All of us depend on media to receive our news. Most of the time this media is controlled by organizational interests each of whom have a story to tell. You can’t help but notice the differences. When the New York Times, a noted progressive source, tells the story of Alton Sterling, they publish a smiling face in a bright blue shirt taken by his family.

Alton Sterling blue

When Fox News tells the story, they show Sterling’s mug shot from a prior minor conviction. Confirmation bias explains the reason: the New York Times wants to tell the story that overzealous police have killed an innocent black life that matters. Fox news labors to lift up blue lives mattering to share that noble police had to deal with yet another noncompliant ex-criminal making all of us less safe.


A year ago it was the same. CNN showed us pictures of Ferguson’s Michael Brown in a green and yellow cap and gown graduating from high school- a good kid. Fox quickly aired film from a convenience store where Brown was involved in a theft.

Michael Brown grad

So, here’s the thing. While I support the #BlackLivesMatter movement and believe we have a strong need to address the disproportionate number of white officers policing neighborhoods made up of people of color (representation really does make a difference), confirmation bias can only tell us that we see what we want to see. Confirmation doesn’t tell us that Fox is more biased than CNN or the New York Times. The news outlets all showed pictures that represented true moments in these lives in that these pictures are legitimate and portrayed moments that happened. These different sources all picked images that supported and confirmed the various stories they want to tell us. This means understanding confirmation bias can’t, per se, tell you whether the New York Times or Fox is more accurate to the deep truth to which none of us have access.

What confirmation bias can do is wake us up to the reality that the ‘facts’ we are being shown are always partial facts, at best. We now see through a mirror dimly. No matter how strongly we are feeling right now, we see through a mirror dimly. Indeed, the more powerful our feelings are, the more apt we are to be swayed by confirmation bias- the more willing to believe information that appears to support what we already believe.

Black lives matter. Saying black lives matter does not mean black lives matter more; it means black lives matter, too. I don’t teach my children to be afraid of police officers. I tell them they are here to protect us, and my black friends just shake their heads at this. This disparity can and must change. One of the ways this will change is each of us becoming more thoughtful about the media we see. All of us need to think about the images we are seeing, the stories we are being told (and sold), and making critical judgments for ourselves regarding how much of the full story we are really receiving.

One of the key hashtags coming out of the movement is #StayWoke. Normally, this means to keep focused on racial bias. And I agree with this. But I would also add a cautionary note that #StayWoke might also implore us to be thoughtful about being watchful of which information sources we are learning from and asking ourselves not only what we are being shown, but also ask what we are missing.