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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: To be reasonable

by Brenda Looper | May 25, 2022 at 4:22 a.m.
Brenda Looper

My plan to early-vote Saturday never got off the ground, thanks to insomnia (you're welcome for not endangering you; I'm a very cranky driver when exhausted). Theoretically, then, this morning I'm resting up from voting Tuesday, doing a late column edit, and hoping that my votes for more reasonable Republicans counted.

I mean, really, reasonableness should count, right?

And yet we know that so often it doesn't, especially in politics, where the more outrageous often wins the day. I often have to try to convince people that I didn't write what they think I wrote. (Such as my "strong pro-abortion stance," according to one Internet commenter who apparently thinks being personally against abortion but unwilling to cut that choice off for others who need it is "pro-abortion." My exact words: "I personally wouldn't have an abortion unless circumstances meant that it was the only choice. My feelings and morals don't mean that someone else can't have that choice." It's especially sad considering that column was about nuance.)

When you have the proof right in front of you of exactly what was said/written, it should be easy. But when you have people who make a sport out of reading into what's been written something that isn't there, well, you can sense my frustration. And it's the same for other writers as well; I can't tell you how many times I've had to reject letters because someone said John Brummett or Bradley Gitz or one of our other writers said something they didn't say.

This is far from unique to me or this paper. People regularly infer things that aren't there (don't get me started on them constantly mixing up "imply" [which the writer does] and "infer" [which the reader does]), thanks in large part to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out only the information that confirms your worldview and ignore or pooh-pooh inconvenient facts. Not only am I unlikely to change the mind of a reader who isn't open to points of view that may not completely sync with his, but that reader is likely to ascribe far more radical beliefs to me (or any other writer) than I actually have.

Which makes me wonder sometimes why I and others write at all when people will just interpret what we write however they want. Gluttons for punishment, I guess.

Of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning (the natural tendency to cherry-pick and twist facts to fit beliefs), the Farnam Street blog notes: "Our use of this cognitive shortcut is understandable. Evaluating evidence (especially when it is complicated or unclear) requires a great deal of mental energy. Our brains prefer to take shortcuts. This saves the time needed to make decisions, especially when we're under pressure. As many evolutionary scientists have pointed out, our minds are unequipped to handle the modern world. For most of human history, people experienced very little new information during their lifetimes. Decisions tended to be survival-based. Now, we are constantly receiving new information and have to make numerous complex choices each day. To stave off [getting overwhelmed], we have a natural tendency to take shortcuts.

"In 'The Case for Motivated Reasoning,' Ziva Kunda wrote, 'we give special weight to information that allows us to come to the conclusion we want to reach.' Accepting information that confirms our beliefs is easy and requires little mental energy. Contradicting information causes us to shy away, grasping for a reason to discard it."

People often "read between the lines" and try to understand what someone actually means, which is fine when it's someone they know well; they're far more likely to correctly interpret what Cousin Roy means when he says he loves that Aunt Jen works so hard on her Italian cuisine (maybe she should just order out).

But c'mon. When something is written in a straightforward manner, just read what's there. If someone writes "I love cats," it doesn't mean that that person hates dogs. If someone says they want to bring back the spirit of compromise to politics, it doesn't mean they're a radical leftist (and can we please stop using the word "radical" to refer to anyone slightly to the left or right of you?).

I know. Radical, this idea of taking things at face value.

Anyone can be at the mercy of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, but in recognizing it, you can fight it.

But on the Internet, you can find just about anything that can shore up your case, so media literacy is important. Matthew Hornsey, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, told Kirsten Weir of the American Psychological Association, "These are wonderful times for motivated reasoners. The Internet provides an almost infinite number of sources of information from which to choose your preferred reality. There's an echo chamber out there for everyone."

Stepping out of the chamber is hard. Resolving to forgo cognitive shortcuts and read/listen to only what's there ... that could be harder.

Being reasonable shouldn't be that hard.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.


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