Confirmation Bias – What you already know may kill you

Consider these three headlines:

  1. “8th Grade Health Class Squirms Throughout Entire Screening of ‘Miracle of Abortion’
  2. “’Hail Satan!’: The New ‘Pro-Choice’ Mantra”
  3. “Sometimes When Things Get Really Stressful, I Close My Eyes, Sit Back and Pretend I’m Back in Kenya” By Barack Obama

Is “The Onion” real?

All three are hilarious.  All three confirm already held beliefs of some conservatives.  However, two of these headlines are from the satirical newspaper The Onion.  One of these is from the conservative (non-satirical) website Townhall.  Can you guess which one is supposed to be taken seriously?

All three of these headlines work in a satirical sense because they are all based on previously held assumptions and belief systems.  The tendency for people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or assumptions and dismiss information that opposes their belief system is called confirmation bias.  When presented with these three headlines, conservatives would be more willing to believe in them than would liberals.  They confirm the belief systems of some conservatives who are pro-life activists or those who believe President Obama was born in Kenya.

One of my favorite websites is  On this site, they simply repost Facebook posts of people who share articles from the satirical The Onion who actually believe in the accuracy of the article.  These are people who don’t get the satire of the headline and instead believe it to be true.  Two of the three above headlines were top posts on

In response to posting about the 8th grade class who watched the video ‘miracle of abortion’, one Facebook user posted “This is what they are teaching your kids people! This is not only sick but dangerous!”  In response to the editorial by Barack Obama pretending to be back in Kenya, a wonderfully racist Facebook user posted “We all wish you were back in Kenya also…please go there and don’t look back.” He also clarified his eloquent statement later by somewhat understanding the source of the article stating, “the Onion is a satire news site…some true, some totally made up.”

Liberty University – Where “Christian worldview” means anti-gay

The guy who even knew The Onion was satire still believed the headline anyway, justifying this by assuming that some articles on the site were still true. Confirmation bias suggests that we all find information that further confirms our belief system and I guess some of us have to resort to satirical sources to do so.  As you have surmised by now, the true headline from is “Hail Satan! : The New ‘Pro-choice’ Mantra.”  This article was written by Matt Barber, an attorney and professor at Liberty University who holds a Masters degree from Regent University.  Of course Liberty University, the largest evangelical Christian university in the world, was founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971. Liberty University seeks to “promote the synthesis of academic knowledge and Christian worldview in order that there might be a maturing of spiritual, intellectual, social and physical value-driven behavior.” Regent University, on the other hand, was founded by televangelist preacher Pat Robertson in 1978. Regent University “serves as a center of Christian thought and action to provide excellent education through a Biblical perspective and global context equipping Christian leaders to change the world.”

This background is relevant to understanding the belief system of the author of the ‘Hail Satan’ article Matt Barber as well as the belief system of those who read him and take him seriously.  With the conservative Christian worldview, abortion is murder.  God said ‘Thou shall not kill’.  Pro-life activists do not see any moral grey area from a pro-choice women’s perspective. Not only is this tenant central to the conservative Christian belief system, it has become, since Roe v. Wade, the pillar of identity for conservative Christians.  If one buys into the Christian conservative belief system, say by attending Liberty University or Regent University, your identity is defined by these tenants: pro-life, anti-gay,  “family values”.  If this defines who you are as a person, loving Jesus and hating abortion, then loving preachers who incite hatred against homosexuals is fine.  Hating anyone who promotes abortion is fine.  Inciting violence against those who perform abortions is justifiable.  Calling the pro-choice movement Satanist, well, that just makes a lot of sense.  It fits their belief system. Any small piece of information, no matter if it’s truthful or not, that confirms a belief system will be scrutinized less and believed more.

Partisans are fooled more often – on either side of the aisle

Research suggests that partisans are more susceptible to the confirmation bias than non-partisans.  Partisans can be defined as such due to their identity to a political party.  When someone identifies with a political party, they also identify with that party’s belief system.  Partisans who follow their party’s belief system tend to seek out information that further confirms this belief system.  Hence, liberals watch MSNBC with Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell and Rachel Maddow.  Conservatives watch Fox News with Steve Ducey, Britt Hume, Bill O’Reilly and that other white guy who’s not Steve Ducey.  I have tried watching Fox News and listening to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on the radio.  Honestly, I can only stomach so much of it.  After yelling at the television screen or my radio, I may look like a crazy person.  Screaming “what the hell is wrong with you?” towards a television screen while no one else is in the room may be a sign of instability.  However, this is the confirmation bias at work.  We can all be unstable from time to time.

What is going on when a liberal listens to Rush Limbaugh on the radio or when a conservative watches the Rachel Maddow Show?  It may have to do with what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls cognitive strain and cognitive ease.  In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he describes cognitive ease as a quick-thinking, automatic process of your mind that indicates that “things are going well – no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort.” Conversely, cognitive strain is a slower thinking process occurring when a problem exists which forces your mind to focus on this problem and somehow relieve this strain.  Cognitive ease comes about when we have experiences that: are repeated often, are clear to our sensual perceptions of vision or hearing, are primed ideas already a part of our belief system and when we are in a good mood.  When this is the case, the idea presented to us feels familiar, true, good and effortless.  The opposite occurs with cognitive strain.  When liberals listen to right-wing talk radio, it does not put them in a good mood, nor are the ideas primed for their belief system which creates cognitive strain.  This results in liberals feeling that this right-wing message feels foreign to them, objectively false, generally bad and can sometimes result in screaming “what the hell is wrong with you?”

Research suggests that partisans reflexively, intuitively accept their own party’s position and reject the position of the opposition party.  Even when each partisan is presented with the argument from the other partisan side, they are unconvinced.  Actually, research has suggested that partisans are even more confident in their own political ideas after hearing an argument from the other side.  When Democrats and Republicans argue about politics, each one leaves the argument feeling better about their own ideas and worse about the others.  This may be good news for those who want to see more Crossfire-like shows and panels on cable news.  Liberals are on one side. Conservatives are on the other side.  They argue. They disagree (vehemently).  Each one proudly stands up for their own team. Everyone on that team who watches leaves the argument feeling confident they are correct.  Everyone also leaves the argument feeling confident the other side is wrong.  This makes for entertaining television.  But it makes for terrible politics.  Can anyone truly wonder why Congress can’t get together and compromise to pass legislation?  It’s not just Congress. It’s all of us.  We have been programmed for disagreement, not compromise.

Confirmation bias divides us politically by not allowing us to fairly or objectively consider new information.  We all tend to seek out information that will already conform to our political beliefs but we also tend to repel our opponents arguments automatically. In the posts to come, I’ll explore in greater detail the research backing up confirmation bias, the backfire effect and many other mental shortcuts we use that lead to us coming apart politically instead of coming together.