July 12, 2016

Challenging Confirmation Bias: Ways to Widen Your Perspective

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

It feels like there’s a lot going on. A presidential election and all of the discussion about gun and immigration politics. Supreme Court rulings. Orlando. Black Lives Matter.

There is good reason to raise that rainbow flag or post that Black Lives Matter sign on your lawn. If you are white, straight and cisgender, the persons of color and LGBTQ folks you know might appreciate your signs of support. Someone walking by your house might take comfort in seeing some love.

There are plenty of unconscious reinforcements that support our preexisting thoughts on events, what psychologists call a confirmation bias. Confirmation bias and ethnocentricism (what sociologist William Graham Sumner described as the assessment that one’s own culture and values are superior to others) lock together. These twin forces block, slow, and alter our ability to be good allies for folks who are unlike us.

This is not the point where I am not going to tell you how to be an ally. You should listen to folks like Jesse Williams at this year’s BET Awards or Franchesca Ramsey offering Five Tips For Being An Ally (and click all the groovy resources she offers), not a cisgendered white guy like me.

Here is one thing that I learned from a recent venture to the blog Black Girl Dangerous: Ally is not a term without contention. Mia McKenzie offers a great counterpoint, voicing concern over the term—and critiquing one of the more high-profile white allies, Tim Wise, because it has become a too facile way to cloak oneself in a sort of righteous performance.

And what I’ve read from several folks is to be sure to seek out the perspectives of others.

Technology, in a way, feeds our confirmation bias. As I wrote about in another Everyday Sociology post: the algorithms we rely upon for news and information tailor results to keep us in what Eli Pariser calls The Filter Bubble. But the good news is that it only requires a modest amount of initiative to break through your worldview and check that confirmation bias. There is a vibrant world of online and social media offering the opportunity to educate yourself through perspectives different from your own. (Even better: the more you search out these resources, the more those pesky algorithms will learn that you actually want those new perspectives.)

So, I’ve been working on a list, and I have to give a big shout out to my Facebook friends who helped me compile it. Here it is:

  • The Root is a news, culture and opinion site for African Americans founded by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Their goal is to give “voice to a changing, more diverse America.”
  • Colorlines is a daily news and investigative journalism site published by Race Forward, a national organization that advances racial justice through research, media and practice.
  • Against Equality is an online collective of queer thinkers, writers and artists aiming to critique mainstream gay and lesbian politics.
  • The Grio is a news aggregator for an African American audience.
  • Autostraddle is an irreverent feminist blog for “kickass lesbian, bisexual & otherwise inclined ladies (and their friends).”
  • Indian Country Today is a news platform operated by the Oneida Nation.
  • Hello Beautiful is for millennial women of color and Very Smart Brothas is a cultural commentary site.
  • Feministing is a “community run by and for young feminists” writing on a “broad range of intersectional feminist issues–from campus sexual violence to transgender rights to reproductive justice” and Feminist Frequency is a site run by Anita Sarkessian, offering cultural commentary on gendered representations in video games and film.
  • Black Girl Dangerous started with Executive Director Mia McKenzie’s commitment to “amplify the voices, experiences and expressions of queer and trans people of color” in as many ways as possible.
  • Log on to Seven Scribes, a site for “Black and allied young writers and artists.”
  • Two sites on larger media platforms are Jezebel, a blog owned by Gawker Media, and Huffington Post-Queer Voices is a part of the massive news aggregation site founded by Arianna Huffington.
  • If podcasts are your thing, you can subscribe to Throwing Shade, For Colored Nerds, Black Girls Talking, Yo! Is this Racist?, Nerdette, or The Read.

(And don’t think that the irony is lost on me that I am a white guy curating a list of POC/LGBTQ websites! Think of me as being a little bit like Tim Wise, speaking to white folks “like me.” Feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments below.)

While reading this new media, when you stumble on a phrase or a cultural reference or a different way of thinking, don’t ask what is wrong with the author or the website, but ask the harder questions of yourself: What is it about your own culture and worldview that might be preventing you from understanding what’s in the text? What preconceptions do you think hold you back?

There are ways to not do this well. Watch, for example, Fox News contributors express shock and confusion at the aforementioned speech by Jesse Williams at the BET Awards (in a clip that was discussed by the Atlanta Black Star). Host Tucker Carlson takes a Williams quip, that people “gentrify our genius” and says “whatever that means” before moving on. Another commentator asks “where does this come from?”

I suppose that that would have been a great direction for a conversation, although it was asked rhetorically and went unanswered in the segment. I suspect that your own questions could go into greater detail.

Once you’ve started thinking more critically, then try to tease out the differences in what you see when you start folding mainstream media back into your reading. How does Hello Beautiful report on recent SCOTUS rulings as compared with, say, Politico? Or how is the Fisher v University of Texas at Austin ruling explained at Colorlines? How does Indian Country Today report on fracking as compared with CNN Money? How are the anti-immigration sentiments behind Brexit explained by The Root? Black girl Dangerous explains how Trans and Queer Latinx folks feel about the Orlando Pulse shootings?

And last, you might want to think about sharing other people’s ideas. That’s great, but do take care not to put your voice before others’ voices. Offer a signal boost for the things that you’ve read and watched online.

Here’s something I learned from one of our UMass graduate students: Try not to think of a term like “anti-racist” or “ally” as a completed end goal—as a self-designated title of achievement, or enlightenment—but rather as a commitment to an ongoing process. I like that a lot.


Great insight, never would have thought there were news outlets like these out there. Thanks.

I appreciate what you said about the end goal being "a commitment to an ongoing process." It is heartbreaking,the issues that are currently being faced in this country, and the devastation that is resulting from humans considering other humans worth less than themselves. I will never understand why and how we can be so cruel to each other, simply because we have different belief systems. If we all committed to an ongoing process to seek a better understanding of our fellow human beings, and to love each other despite our differences, think of how many of our problems would dissolve.

As usual people miss the point as to why men like jesse williams are speaking out because people do not want to face facts racism is STILL rampant and it is mostly towards black people I think the police murdering black people should be proof enough and if its not ask yourself why not??

Its black people getting murdered by police a lot of the time, think about that, digest that, and stop trying to blame victims.

Thanks for a great post, Jonathan. Developing the ability to approach people and circumstances from multiple viewpoints can improve individual wellness and relationships. Thanks for great examples to highlight this.

"As usual people miss the point as to why men like jesse williams are speaking out because people do not want to face facts racism is STILL rampant and it is mostly towards black people I think the police murdering black people should be proof enough and if its not ask yourself why not??"

There's a difference between speaking facts and whatever nonsense Jesse was spewing out of his mouth for clout. Also, 13% does 52% of crime, deal with it.

Also, The Root is nothing more than confirmation bias amongst black people, not to mention that it is ironically white-owned as well. Michael Harriot is a charalatan, liar and all out fool, and so is anybody not seeing behind his own "woe is me" biases.

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