What are the origins of your assumptions? Like most of us, you firmly believe your assumptions are evidence-based, having resulted from your myriad life experiences as well as from your unbiased analysis of information you’ve obtained from reliable sources. Behind the scenes and virtually unknown to all of us, we actually are easily influenced by a phenomenon known as a confirmation bias. Our assumptions are often upheld by giving attention to the information that supports them, while tending to disregard information that disputes or invalidates them.
A confirmation bias involves having a preference for information that confirms your previously existing assumptions, as shown in the following example. Consider for a moment that someone holds an assumption that light-skinned people are more industrious than dark-skinned people. Whenever this individual comes across a person who is both light-skinned and industrious, they are apt to place greater value on so-called evidence that sustains what they already assume to be true. This individual could even be likely to gather additional evidence reinforcing this assumption while discrediting examples that don't support the notion.
"The key to listening for deep understanding is a sincere desire to know what is going on with other people. It lets us ask questions we might otherwise not have the insight to ask. And it allows us to be more open to responses that otherwise would not have found their way into our awareness.”
Co-Author of Conflict - The Unexpected Gift
The 2020 Election
For example, in these days of harsh judgments and hyper-polarized political battles in advance of the 2020 election, people tend to look for information that presents the candidates they are supporting in a positive light. By the same token, they are apt to search for information that creates a shadow over the opposing candidates. People who support a particular politicized issue will not only seek information that supports it, but also look for elements in news accounts that justify their position. By interpreting information in ways that only support their existing assumptions, they often overlook important facts.
The Paris Climate Agreement
Take the debate over the Paris Climate Agreement. Let's say Amy fully supports it. She looks around for news stories and editorials that reaffirm her position. When she reads or hears accounts in the media, she interprets them in ways that back up her existing assumptions. Arturo, on the other hand, is completely against the Agreement. He only pays attention to news sources that are aligned with his view that it was right for the U.S. to pull out of the Agreement. When he chances upon news stories about the issue, he interprets them in ways that buttress his current assumptions.
Our Assumptions Are Based On Our Beliefs
Amy and Arturo have very different opinions on the same subject and their assumptions are based on their beliefs. Even if they were to read the same account, their bias tends to influence the way they take in the details, further confirming their assumptions.
We are all prone to confirmation bias. It's very difficult to overcome this natural tendency. At the same time, if we are aware of our confirmation bias and accept the reality that we have it, we can strive to recognize it by trying to be curious about opposing views and listening for deep understanding to what others have to say.