Belief and bias confirmation

I've observed for a while now (or perhaps I should say "believed") that people generally tend to notice evidence that confirms their preexisting beliefs, and ignore or discount evidence that contradicts those beliefs.

I was struck this morning by a couple of comment threads on articles about the Amazon thing. Within the space of a few minutes, I saw two or three places where a blogger or news venue said "Amazon says this is a glitch and is being fixed," and the comments were full of people saying (heavily paraphrased) "This can't possibly be a glitch--it's quite obvious that Amazon is out to get GLBT people! Amazon must be destroyed!"

Which leads me to think that a lot of people (a) really don't trust corporations (often this belief is quite justified), and (b) are primed to believe that apparent discrimination against GLBT people must be intentional (this belief, too, is also often justified).

(For anyone who missed it, Amazon has now given much more information about what happened, and an employee has leaked even more information, and in fact it turns out to have been a simple error on the part of an employee. (Thanks for the links, Mary Anne!) Amazon is fixing it. Amazon did not intend to hurt GLBT books, and there was no conspiracy of homophobic trolls reporting thousands of such books to Amazon as porn; it was an employee's small mistake, possibly compounded by language-translation issues, that had an effect far disproportionate to the size of the error. In the computer industry, it's extremely easy for that to happen; I wonder whether people who work at computer companies, especially big computer companies, were less likely to assume bad intent in this instance than people who don't.)

I'm obliquely reminded of an embarrassing incident from my college days: I had heard a rumor to the effect that the US Congress was going to institute some kind of evil scheme--maybe something to do with requiring identity papers, or putting liberals in concentration camps? I don't remember. I wrote to SWAPA about it (for you post-paper kids, an APA is sort of like a monthly paper-based forum or newsgroup), outraged. An older and much more conservative (and much more politically knowledgeable) member of SWAPA replied dismissively, and I re-replied angrily that it was totally plausible. And then the date passed when the evil thing was supposed to happen, and I never heard anything more about it, and I quietly tried to pretend that I hadn't been up in arms about it.

But it was a useful lesson to me about the fallibility of my plausibility meter, so thanks (many years late) to Kevin J. for calling me on it.

The thing is, when a company or organization or government does something outrageous or awful, it is important to rally public opinion and push back. The hard part is figuring out when you're in that situation and when you're not. And getting an official statement from a company spokesperson (not a first-line support person) is an important part of making that determination. (Of course, company spokespeople sometimes lie, and companies do sometimes attempt to do evil things and then back down when there's a public outcry. Still, it seems to me to be generally a good idea to wait at least a day for an actual official response before calling for boycotts and such, especially when the outrage starts over a holiday weekend in the company's home country.)

(There's one other thing I keep forgetting to address: someone claims that de-ranking GLBT books has been Amazon policy since February. Thing is, the entry where I saw that claim said (if I understood right) that he had complained about it and his book had gotten its ranking turned back on. That doesn't sound to me like an ongoing policy issue. But this, too, got turned into a matter of outrage and rumor, like playing a global game of Telephone.)

Me, I like Amazon. I've been a customer of theirs for years. There are certainly downsides to their success; for example, my impression is that they've added significantly to the decline of independent brick-and-mortar bookstores, and I'm sad about that. (And I buy my books at local bookstores whenever feasible.) But there are also big upsides to Amazon, and overall I think they do a pretty good job. (And they make a lot of small-press books easily available that most bookstores wouldn't have room to stock, though I don't really know enough about that to claim it's an entirely positive thing for everyone.) So even though I'm unhappy that their PR people weren't more forthcoming with details within the first 24 hours of this mess, I was inclined to believe their explanation in the absence of a reason not to; which is to say, the idea that this whole thing was a mistake reinforced my beliefs about how the world works, so I was inclined to believe that explanation.

But it's clear that for a lot of people, the opposite is true: Amazon is bad by default (whether because it's a corporation, because it's hurt independent bookstores, or for some other reason), guilty until proven innocent, and the vague explanation provided on Sunday was further evidence of guilt. IIrc, there have been other contexts in which various groups or people have tried to label anything GLBT-related as porn (wasn't there Internet filtering software that did that? I forget), so it's not that the core idea was implausible. And there were various tidbits (like the extremely unfortunate letter from the customer-service person) that appeared to provide reinforcing evidence for anyone already inclined in that direction.

So I can understand where the refusal to believe the "glitch" answer was coming from. But I have two recommendations for next time this kind of thing happens (and I guarantee there will be a next time):

  • Remember that computer systems are incredibly complicated and are generally held together with the high-tech equivalent of spit and baling wire; also, they're operated by humans who are at least as mistake-prone as the computers. You know the old saying "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity"? (or "by incompetence") I would add "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by software failure or operator error."
  • If you find yourself being consumed by outrage, take a step back and question your assumptions. Is it possible that you're assuming motivations that may not be present? Is it possible that the information you've received is incomplete, biased, or false? Is it possible that you're interpreting that information through the filter of your own biases, and that there might be another perfectly good explanation? ...I'm guessing this point is going to sound lecturey; I'm sorry for that. I'm talking to myself at least as much as to the world here; I constantly fall afoul of this. Many is the outraged letter I've written before re-reading the original note I'm responding to and discovering that it didn't say what I thought it said.

One Response to “Belief and bias confirmation”

  1. textjunkie

    well put.


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