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Biasedly confirmed

The way other people describe things, I often wonder if I'm living in the same world they're living in.  To be honest, I think that it wouldn't be all that inaccurate to say that we are indeed living in different worlds.  Because the way we perceive the world is all that we really know, not the world as it truly is.  For example, there is only a tiny spectrum of frequencies of light that we are capable of seeing.  All other frequencies are there, but invisible to our eyes.  In other words, we only see a tiny portion of what we could be seeing.

So, imagine if one person could see the color white but not the color black.  And another person could see black but not white.  If both of them looked at a zebra, one would see a white horse and the other would see a black horse.  They'd see something completely different, even though they're looking at precisely the same thing.

So what am I really getting at?  Well, what made me want to write this post was all the comments I've seen from various people to the effect of "<group of people> are all such <adjective>".  For example, "Guys are jerks" or "gays are fakes/superficial".  It's odd to me to read comments like this (and there are tons more examples) because when I see them, I think to myself "but that's not the case at all.  Nearly all of the <group in question> I know are <antonym adjective of used>."

For example, let's go with guys.  Regardless of sexual orientation--straight, bi, gay, whatever.  Guys are jerks.  Well, let me think of the guys that I know.  My dad, my brothers, my friends from high school.  My roommates in college (ok, so maybe I had one or two roommates who were jerks).  My math teachers.  My religion teachers.  My fellow grad students in the math program at UTK (ok, so maybe one or two of them were jerks too).  My gay friends that I've made since I came out of the closet.  Nearly every single one of these men is good.  The word "jerk" would hardly be descriptive of any of them.  They're good folk.  They do good things.  They say nice things.  They're friendly, helpful, generous, loving.  They're people I enjoy hanging out with.  They're honest.  They're fair.  They've got so many good qualities.  So I get so confused when I hear them described completely the opposite of what I see in my own life.

So, one possible explanation that I've come up with for this is the possibility of confirmation bias.  This is the phenomenon (which is completely 100% natural in all of us) where we filter information we get based on our opinions.  That is, if you believe that guys are jerks and you see a guy doing some behavior which could be considered bad, you remember that behavior and say "I knew it.  Guys are jerks."  If you see a guy who is honest and kind, you dismiss it by saying "Well, of course there are exceptions.  But guys are still jerks." or you even invent information which may not even have any foundation in reality, such as "This is just a front he's putting on to make people like him.  He's really a jerk.  He's just being nice to take advantage of people."  So, I think that people who make claims like "guys are jerks" really do believe it, and really do feel that nearly all the guys they know are jerks because of their confirmation bias.

Honestly, I feel that I do the same thing.  As I mentioned my list above, I pointed out exceptions.  These are the ones that I dismissed as I was going along.  My belief is "people are good".  Any information that does not match my belief, I deny or deflect, in the same manner I described in the last paragraph.  If I see someone who's behaving poorly, I dismiss it "Oh, of course there are exceptions, but people are still good."  Or I invent something "Perhaps he's just having a bad day, or perhaps there's a misunderstanding."  This isn't a conscious effort on my part.  It isn't something that I've trained myself to do because I'm a good person or anything like that.  It's just an automatic biological response.  I don't think about it.  It just happens.

So, when I look at people, I see the white light, and when someone else looks at the same people, they see the black light.  We're both looking at the same people but we're seeing completely different things.  Which one of us is right?  It seems the only reasonable response is that we're both wrong and the truth is something richer and fuller.

One problem that can happen is what is often (colloquially) referred to as a "circle jerk", where one person will post their comment "guys are jerks" and then everyone else will nod in agreement "it's so true", "my ex bf was an ass", "I hate guys", etc.  Sometimes the language escalates.  Sometimes people feel a need to tell stories and 1-up the previous story by something more nasty than the one before, to prove that guys really indeed are jerks.  This only further cements the idea into the minds of the people posting.  Whether the idea is itself true or not is irrelevant, the testimonials given strengthen the opinion in every participant's mind.

I think that the key is to be aware of this phenomenon.  Look for it.  Try to see if you can catch yourself doing it.  Notice when you deny or deflect information that challenges your beliefs.  See if there's a fuller light spectrum there that you're just not seeing.  And consider the possibility that if you do think that "all guys are jerks" or "all gays are fakes", perhaps the problem isn't all guys, it's you.  That's a hard thing to accept.  I almost never have been successful in acknowledging that.  But if I ask myself "what if the problem isn't everyone else, it's me?" I'm more likely to see it.  What if I'm just a jerk to everyone else, and that's why I notice them all being a jerk to me.

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