Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | August 17, 2010

Confirmation Bias

I’ll mostly wrap up my thinking about “epistemic closure” in this post, although as a historian interested in individual and collective memory I’m always game for talking about the way we process information.

Quick note to Steve: you’re right. Confirmation bias is probably a savvier way to describe the phenomenon by which people unconsciously tune out–or avoid altogether–sources of information relaying narratives that don’t fit their preexisting ideological architecture.

I got to thinking more about the problem when I read Emily Bazelon’s piece in Slate on the sad story of Phoebe Prince, the teenage South Hadley (right down the road from me) bullying victim who committed suicide in January. Bazelon has taken some flack for her articles. They’re also really, really good journalism. The reason for both of these things is that they do something that makes most of us profoundly uncomfortable: they complicate the narrative.

The story-in-soundbytes goes like this: Prince is bullied. She’s bullied so much that she commits suicide. After this tragic event, the students who bullied her are charged by the MA state’s attorney, and they’ll deserve whatever sentence they get.

This story has a clear arc: a wrong begets tragedy; the righteous mete out justice. I went through myself. I read the early articles about Prince’s suicide when the case became a national forum on bullying. My sense of justice was immediately offended–no one should ever be put through that kind of harassment–and so I looked for someone to blame. I perceived an allegedly inattentive school administration system and a gaggle of malicious teens. Propping up my conclusion were a number of questionable supports: my understanding of high school social dynamics, mediated by my own remembered high school social status, the depiction of hich school social hierarchies in entertainment (see: Mean Girls), and my understanding that in some way, assigning Prince even a little responsibility in her death might seem like blaming the victim. In fact, there are probably even deeper issues here: Prince was a young girl, and therefore more deserving of pity, right?

But as Bazelon shows, the fuller narrative of Prince’s bullying and suicide is both more emotionally difficult and more factually complex than the version of the story that makes it to most news outlets. This is the case because, as Bazelon’s investigation demonstrates, Prince herself retained some agency as an actor in the events leading to her suicide. Prince’s death is not her fault. But neither is it solely the fault of the six students being charged in the case. Legally and morally, it’s a hazy situation. It’s taken good journalism to clear away some of the confusion, and it’ll take good lawyers to clear up the rest.

The point is that we should try to hold ourselves responsible for our own habits of information consumption, because the really important aspects of a story are almost never self-evident.



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