Confirmation bias is defined as a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true. Confirmation bias often results in people collecting new evidence, interpreting evidence in a biased way, or selectively recalling information from memory.
We all suffer from confirmation bias to one degree or another -- and the better we understand how it manifests in us the better. Confirmation bias affects the organizations we join, the news we choose to read, and even the information that we see because of the Google terms we select (one may end up with a very different view of 'pit bulls' for instance if somone chooses to type the terms "pit bull bites" vs the terms "pit bulls: family dogs").
Because of confirmation bias, people often then seek out groups of people who share similar beliefs. The internet has provided countless ways for people to connect with others who share their beliefs. When we associate with others that share our beliefs - we become succeptable to the idea of group polarization. Group polarization is the idea that as people interact more with people who share their same beliefs, they become more convinced in their beliefs and more extreme in their views. This causes an overconfidence in personal beliefs that allows people to maintain or even strengthen their beliefs in the face of contrary evidence.
When groups become polarized, and overconfident in their beliefs, they then become very inclined to try to discredit any person or groups of people that offer opposing viewpoints - and by discrediting the source, the belief is that it makes the information incorrect also.
These ideas aren't new -- and they can be seen throughout all areas of daily life (I'll save my rant on how this is killing our national politics for another forum). But over the past few months I've seen this manifest itself a lot in the animal welfare movement....and here are a couple of examples that have really struck me in the past few weeks.
Mandatory Spay/Neuter Laws
For years, people in the breeding community have opposed mandatory spay/neuter laws -- however, in recent years, more animal welfare organizations have also taken notice of the negative impact of these laws and have taken a stance against them -- including the AVMA, ASPCA, the No Kill Advocacy Center, Best Friends and American Humane Association.
Even so, it seems to have become a more partisan issue on the local level. When the idea of it comes up, many will step up and note the failure of the laws in other areas and why the laws shouldn't be passed. When they do, often they are dismissed by folks in the rescue/shelter community because it is assumed that these people are "breeders" or somehow taking money from the breeding community and that is why they don't support the mandatory spay/neuter laws. Instead of listening to the evidence, or looking at the data, they dismiss it because it is, in their minds, not coming from a "credible" source - but one that is only seeking out their own self interests.
And even though most national animal welfare groups do not support MSN, it is still widely supported by folks in local shelters who are often dismissive of the real-world results and real impacts of the laws when passed in communities.
Humane Watch vs Humane Society of the United States
One polarized, partisan debate recently has been between the website HumaneWatch.org and the Humane Society of the United States. The HumaneWatch website has been a widely read, widely distributed and controversial website since it was launched by the Center For Consumer Freedom 3 months ago. It has been really easy for HSUS and supporters of HSUS to try to discredit the website because of who is funding it. For months now, HSUS director Wayne Pacelle has been working to expose the funding sources behind the CCF and CCF director Rick Berman. Even mainstream media is picking up on the story.
And make no mistake, the CCF is funded by big business, and is established to protect the interests of big business.
But that doesn't mean that most of their allogations against HSUS are untrue. In fact, regardless of who is funding Humanewatch, it doesn't change that many of their criticisms of HSUS are true.
1) HSUS is the only animal welfare organization that has embraced dog fighter and felon Michael Vick --the most hated athlete in America disliked by 69% of Americans - but embraced by HSUS.
2) In spite of fundraising promotions that lead people to believe that they are actively providing care for animals, less than 1% of all of their donations go to local shelters that do provide hands on support for animals.
3) Many states have no shelters that received any funding from HSUS for actual hands-on care of animals -- and most states have only a few shelters that have received any aid or funding.
4) HSUS has actively fundraised to help dogs that weren't actually in their care (nor were they planning on providing raised funds to help the animals they were using to fundraise off of). They also did this during the Mike Vick case - asking for money to care for the dogs seized in that case even though they were not caring for the dogs and were simultaneously lobbying for them to be killed.
5) HSUS has been involved in dog busts, claimed to be "working with local humane organizations to adopt them out to loving homes" -- even though HSUS quickly left town, leaving the local organization to care for the animals on their own -- 28 of the dogs ended up dying at the local shelter because they were overwhelmed and had too little support.
6) While many animal welfare organizations are struggling mightily, HSUS sits with over $100,000,000 in the bank -- and much of their current donations go toward fundraising.
And it doesn't change that at least Humanewatch is promoting donating money to local shelters that badly need money in this economy.
Does that mean I love the CCF? No. In reality, I probably share more common beliefs about how animals should be treated and cared for with HSUS than I do with the CCF.
But that doesn't mean the actual facts presented by Humanewatch should be completely ignored. While many seem quick to dismiss them because of who is behind them (including HSUS director Wayne Pacelle), the actual data on the site should be paid close attention to. We should hold the world's wealthiest humane organization to a higher standard - and we should demand better. We should demand truth in advertising from them. And if we don't feel confident about where donations to them are going, we should seek out places to donate those dollars.
It's easy to dismiss those we think we disagree with. But it takes a smart person to look at data and understand that we can learn from all of it -- regardless of the source - -and not let confirmation bias and group polarization allow us to dismiss all information froma source just because of who is funding them.