Recently I was watching a panel discussion on a news channel. The participants expressed amazement at how so many people seem able to ignore the reality of certain situations, and just can’t tolerate the possibility that an admired politician is flawed. One of the panelists, however, described how a psychologist used the concept of “confirmation bias” to explain what was going on. The idea is simple: if you strongly believe something, you’re going to seek out information that confirms your belief. You confirm your bias because the alternative would be to decide that you have pretty poor judgment when it comes to what you believe. Most of us, of course, don’t want to decide that we have poor judgment.

Closely related to confirmation bias is the process of selective perception. Psychologists use this concept to note that we tend to perceive things selectively. We focus on information that is consistent with our attitudes, beliefs, and decisions. Suppose you buy a new car, and the next day read a newspaper account of the latest study of safety features in various models. The article says your vehicle has a tremendous steering system, but a lousy braking system. Selective perception means you’re more likely to process, remember, and be influenced by the steering information than the braking information. The former is consistent with your view of yourself as a wise consumer; the latter is not, so you tune it out.

Both confirmation bias and selective perception fit nicely with a psychological theory called Cognitive Dissonance. If you believe you are a wise consumer, yet come across information (such as the braking flaw in your new car) that contradicts your belief, you experience dissonance in your mind. Dissonance is uncomfortable, and the theory says you will be motivated to get rid of the dissonance, or at least reduce it.

In the case of your car purchase, how might you reduce the dissonance felt after reading the article on safety features? Well, you might say the information on the lousy braking system is just flat-out wrong, fake information. Or, you might decide steering is a much more important system than braking. Conceivably you might even conclude, “Damn, I’m a lousy buyer. I should have checked out the information on this car more carefully. I blew it.” That last option, of course, changing your glowing belief about yourself, is not likely. So instead you go through all sorts of mental machinations to hold onto your glowing self-belief, while you reduce the dissonance by distorting reality, such as saying the safety article was written by someone who hates your car brand. “Yeah,” you think, “who can trust the media?”

Back to our panel discussion about holding on to a positive belief in a politician who has views similar to yours. When others say your guy is a pig, what do you do? Well, you just conclude that those folks have poor judgment because their “facts” are simply false. Order is restored and your bias is confirmed. You ignore or discount information criticizing your guy, and you have rid yourself of dissonance. All is right with the world.

A good coping strategy? Absolutely not! Your mental gymnastics have encouraged you to distort reality, suspend anything resembling critical thinking, and led you into the trap of a self-fulfilling prophesy. That’s the cruel irony of confirmation bias, selective perception, and dissonance reduction: they allow you to reach a conclusion that you held all along. What’s more comforting than that?

Suppose you believe the sales clerks at a particular store are unfriendly. You need an item, however, the troublesome store is close by, and you know they carry it. So you venture in to make the purchase in spite of your negative expectations. Well, lo and behold, before you know it your sales clerk is acting like a total idiot and treating you like an enemy. So you tell him to buzz off and storm out of the store, anxious to file a complaint. You tell yourself, “I knew that store treated customers like dirt. Never should have gone in.”

Wouldn’t it be interesting if you could observe a tape of your interaction with the clerk? Would you be surprised if you saw yourself being antagonistic right from the beginning? Would you be able to admit to yourself that your behavior toward the clerk increased the odds that he would be less than friendly, that your behavior made the clerk behave the way you thought he would even before you entered the store? In other words, your bias led you to act in such a way that caused the clerk to behave in a manner consistent with your belief.

There’s your self-fulfilling prophecy, and social psychology research has verified it occurs. My point, however, is that if you think it‘s good coping to produce your self-fulfilling prophesies, then you are wrapped up in your own biases, attitudes, and needs, and could give a damn about others. You’re not coping well at all.

Let’s go back to that store-clerk example. Imagine that instead of being alone, you’re with a friend who does not have the negative bias toward the store that you have. You say to your friend, “I would like to pick up this item but the clerks in there are nasty.”

She says, “Really? I’ve never found that to be the case. Let’s go in and I bet I can get friendly service. Just let me do the talking.”

So the two of you enter and go to the department that has the item you want. As you head to the counter you mutter to your friend, “That clerk looks like he’s ready to eat someone’s child. That’s why I hate this store.”

When you reach the counter your friend says to the clerk, “Hi, how’s it going? Hope everyone’s treating you nice today. How much longer is your shift?”

“Unfortunately, I’ve still got five hours ahead of me.”

“Oh, that’s terrible. I know how tough it can be working with the public. Hope it goes fast for you. Listen, my friend is looking for a ______. Do you carry it?” (Of course, you know they carry it.)

“Yes, it’s right over here.”

“Oh, that’s fantastic. You’re such a help. This is wonderful.”

Do you get it? Not only was your friend showing sympathy to the clerk, but she also acted in a very friendly manner. She structured the situation in a way to make the clerk feel that he really helped her.

Now some would call your friend a bullsh–r. Our blog readers, however, would call the friend someone with good coping skills. Try it. In fact, try it on a regular basis. Treat others like you believe they will be friendly and helpful. Doing so will greatly increase the likelihood that they reciprocate and show they care about your needs. And everyone will do a lot of smiling, something always conducive to good coping and having a nice day.








2 thoughts on “”

  1. Because I work in an area where there is the public, police, homeland security, and a lot of companies assisting the public with their transportation needs, I often run into many people who are difficult. For those whom I know personally, I almost ask them how their day is going, are people being kind to you today? I show concern for the individual I am asking (and mean it). This is especially helpful if I am needful of their attention at a later time in the same or another day. They remember that I showed “care” for them. And when I need help, I will not be hesitant to ask for it. “I need your help with_____.” And I always listen attentively and then make sure that I thank them afterwards. It is kind of like tipping the server 20 or more percent. When you go back, they will remember you. Of course, there is always that one individual whom can’t be pleased or is unpleasant. For them I always think that I am positively going to have let it roll off my shoulders and move on and no matter what, keep smiling.


  2. Thanks for the story, Sandy. Always good to hear how treating people nicely usually gets us something positive in return. Keep smiling.


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