In the first episode of True Detective, Detective Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) is impressed by his new partner Rust Cohle’s (Matthew McConaughey) ability to interpret the occult symbols found at a crime scene. Hart is less impressed with Cohle’s ability to suppress his confirmation bias, however.
You got a chapter in one of those books on jumping to conclusions? You attach an assumption to a piece of evidence, you start to bend the narrative to support it. Prejudice yourself.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to view the world through the filter of the conclusions you’ve already drawn. We look for information that confirms what we already believe and we ignore or minimize information that doesn’t support our conclusions. Over time, our beliefs become even more firmly entrenched. The confirmation bias reinforces the belief, and the belief reinforces the confirmation bias, and that filter gets stronger and stronger, and ever more narrow. It’s something that we do to ourselves, although we may not realize we’re doing it. We prejudice ourselves, as Marty puts its.
Confirmation bias is like bad breath: it’s easy to pick up on everyone else’s but you’re the last to know about your own. If you’re on Facebook, you probably see other people’s confirmation bias all the time, right? Think about your friends who disagree with you on, say, global warming or gun control, for example. When they post those articles with really obvious flaws in them you think, “They’re so smart about most things. How can they be so dumb about this?”
The real question, though, the hard question, is this: what am I being dumb about?
True Detective is a work of fiction, but the podcast Serial is about a real crime. It’s an enthralling and well-produced piece of longform journalism about a man named Adnan Syed who was convicted of killing his girlfriend Hae Min Lee when they were both high schoolers back in the late 90s. It’s also an extended exploration of confirmation bias. It’s clear that the show’s producer/narrator believes that the police had their confirmation bias fully engaged when they investigated Syed, but she’s also open about her own struggle with confirmation bias. She likesAdnan and believes he’s a good guy. The idea that he’s a killer doesn’t fit through her filter.
We, the audience, get to see Adnan through the producer’s filter, of course, but she has enough integrity to let the bad stuff through, too. She’s done a good job of opening that filter wide enough to let in all the evidence she can gather while at the same time not pretending to a phony level of journalistic objectivity that doesn’t exist in reality.
By telling a long story, Serial shows us something that shorter forms cannot. It shows us that confirmation bias extended over a long period of time creates a narrative. A story. And this story is important to us. Protecting that story can be a rational act of self-preservation. Consider someone who has a longstanding and heartfelt religious or political belief. They have probably built relationships with people who share their values–family, friends, a whole life built around this story. Confirmation bias isn’t just about telling yourself that you’re right, it’s about preserving your story, your entire way of life.
Letting in evidence that challenges your story is a dangerous thing. Very dangerous. Have you ever been driving and, for just a moment wondered, “What would it be like if I just jerked the wheel right now?” That’s what challenging a sincerely-held belief is like. It’s a huge risk. If you change your mind about your story, you will not only throw yourself into a state of confusion, but you will hurt your loved ones. They’ve built their lives around your story, too, and pulling the rug out from under them will not be welcome. (Can you blame them? If you’re tempted, remember that you’ve built your life around their stories, too.)
But, if you’re up for it, here are two sledghammers:
And the usefulness of these techniques depends entirely on how honest you can be with yourself.
Today the world took a short break from arguing about deflated footballs to briefly note the passing of legendary blues guitarist B.B. King. Smithsonian Magazine reprinted an article from 2011 featuring comments by John Hasse, a Curator of Music at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
Hasse said that King had “unchallenged authenticity” which “made the blues seem real.”
With all due respect Dr. Hasse, what the hell are you talking about? Are there musicians prowling about the nation’s blues clubs whose “authenticity” we should be challenging? Are there players who make the blues seem unreal? Can the Smithsonian save us from this fearful epidemic of fake blues? Won’t someone please think of the children?!
I won’t presume to know what Dr. Hesse meant by these comments, but I have often found that, when it comes to the blues, words like “real” and “authentic” often refer to the artist’s personal background. B.B. King was black, from Mississippi, and grew up poor. Did this make him “authentic” and especially qualified to play “real blues?” Maybe. It’s worth noting, however, that King himself did not subscribe to this notion.
“Hard times don’t necessarily mean being poor all the time. I’ve known people that was part of a family and always feel that the family likes everybody else but them. That hurts and that’s as deep a hurt as you can possibly get. I’ve known people that would have problems with their love life. This is kind of how the blues began, out of feeling misused, mistreated, feeling like they had nobody to turn to.
Blues don’t necessarily have to be sung by a person that came from Mississippi as I did, because there are people having problems all over the world.” – B.B. King
King thought deeply about the blues and concluded that it belongs to us all. To paraphrase the Buddha, suffering is inherent to the human condition. The only qualification necessary to play “real,” “authentic” blues is humanity. Musical ability helps, too.
When Alcorn [left] appears in the lobby of the Carlton Hotel, he’s scared. He’s on the run from Manfred Holt, an outlaw responsible for the deaths of at least nine men. Alcorn was the chief witness against Holt, and now Holt has escaped from jail and has sworn to gun him down in revenge.
Paladin: It took some courage to even testify against a man like that.
Alcorn: Oh, I was scared, but I owed it to my neighbors to speak up.
Alcorn has shown admirable bravery and good citizenship by testifying against Holt, but he’s a rich city slicker with no skill in gunmanship. He’s well aware that if Holt isn’t captured quickly, he’ll soon be dead. Paladin agrees to capture Holt, for a fee.
Holt, played brilliantly by Charles Bronson, is one of the most interesting villains in Western history. Although he acknowledges that his tendency to kill is a fault, he attempts to justify it by explaining that he never killed anyone who wasn’t “holding a gun.”
Here’s how The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ritual:
noun. A formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way. An act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.
Every year, on February 2nd, thousands of people gather in the early morning hours at Gobbler’s Knob, a few miles outside of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to witness a weather prediction. Men in formal wear pull a groundhog from a stump. This groundhog’s name is Phil. (Why not?) Tradition holds that if Phil sees his shadow, we’ll have an early spring. If not, we’re stuck with six more weeks of winter. One of the men reads Phil’s prediction in highly-prescribed language. The gathered crowd then rejoices or boos, depending on the outcome. This has happened every year since the 1880s.
Most rituals are serious events—baptisms, weddings, funerals, and the like—but some are just for fun. Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, for example, or gathering on a freezing cold morning to watch a large rodent predict the weather.
When we hear the word ritual, this is the kind of thing that comes to mind. There’s a formal, prescribed series of events or actions, special clothes, special language, etc. A ritual, in this sense, is not a part of our ordinary daily lives. It’s something special, different, set apart.
The Groundhog Day ritual is what brings Phil Connors to Punxsutawney in the movie Groundhog Day. As a TV weatherman, it’s his job to “present” this ritual to the viewing audience. Because Phil is forced to relive the same day over and over, he’s forced to re-present the Groundhog Day ritual over and over again, too. At the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that Phil feels that this ritual is beneath him.
If this is the first you’ve heard of Groundhog Day, I should point out that no one actually believes that the groundhog can predict the weather. We just act as if he can because it’s fun. The ritual involves some make-believe. Phil Connors comes off as a jerk in the clip above not because he doubts the accuracy of the weather-predicting groundhog. Rather, he’s a jerk because he’s not playing along. The point of this ritual is to be silly and have some fun and Phil is not taking the ritual seriously.
Confucius had a lot to say about these kinds of formal rituals, but he also used the word 禮 (li) in a broader sense. For him, 禮 (li) wasn’t like a set of “Sunday clothes” that we bring out just for weddings and funerals. He recommended bringing the same sense of attention, reverence, and good conduct that we associate with formal rituals to our everyday lives as well.
Oddly enough, by the end of the movie, Phil Connors’ life has become something of a ritual. He has adopted an optimal pattern of behavior for living virtuously in his one allotted day.
Confucius said, “Restrain the self and return to ritual (禮, li). That’s virtue (仁, ren). If for a full day you can restrain yourself and return to ritual (禮, li), everyone under Heaven will move toward virtue (仁, ren)…” (Analects, 12.1)
For his single day, Phil Connors is acting according to 禮 (li). In his last Groundhog Day, Phil not only acts virtuously, he does so with a sense of effortless grace and elegance. He is frictionless, floating smoothly from one virtuous interaction to the next. It is the best illustration of the Confucian conception of the intimate relationship between 禮 (li) and virtue 仁 (ren) I have ever seen. And like that conception, it’s much easier to experience than to put into words.
But, back to the quote, does the “whole world return to virtue” in Groundhog Day? Phil’s “whole world” in the movie is Punxsutawney. (Literally. He cannot leave the town.) Although he doesn’t bring about utopia in Punxy, he does have a profound effect on everyone he interacts with. He comes to the rescue of a carload of stranded elderly ladies, a boy who falls from a tree, and a man chocking on his dinner. He saves the marriage of a young couple. He brings joy and happiness to virtually everyone in the town through his art, his music, and his humor. And, in a scene that destroys me every time I see it, he gives comfort to an elderly homeless man whose death he cannot prevent.
Hold on…get your tissues. I’ll wait here…No, I’m fine. Just got something in my eye.
By the end of the movie, Phil also exhibits what Confucius called 德 (de), a kind of moral charisma or moral power. In addition to helping others, he exhibits a positive sway over them. Again, it’s easier to experience than to put into words, but just look at how other people “brighten” in Phil’s presence in his final Groundhog Day.
And let’s not forget the more ordinary sense of ritual, either. On Phil’s last Groundhog Day, he has mastered his role in the ritual, retaining the fun while, at the same time, transforming it into a moment of deep and sincere gratitude.
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