I’m sitting in the courtroom trying to pay careful attention to the questions the lawyers are asking my fellow potential jurors. I know it’s unlikely that I’ll even get to speak. I was called last in my pool. I’ll only be asked to actively participate in voir dire — the jury selection process whereby we’re questioned by both lawyers to determine how suitable we are to serve — if they reject at least five of my peers.
And at this rate, I’ll be surprised if they reject any.
In addition to many other that specifically relate to the case, both lawyers keep asking the same general question over and over as followup, “Could you be impartial?”
Typically this happens after a potential juror has given kind of a dicey response. “Even given that, could you be impartial?”
One person knows the defense attorney personally. Another has worked for the police department for decades. Someone else had a relative who was the victim of homicide.
“Could you be impartial?”
Every single one of them answers yes.
As I sit there paying careful attention, I know the odds are slim that all of those answers are truthful. Not because of any active deception on my fellow jurors’ part (well, not necessarily, though I suppose some of them could be lying to get on the jury for some reason).
But because that’s not exactly how the human mind works.
(Although it’s worth noting that folks with a background in psychology who would know that are frequently excluded from juries.)
We Tend to Look for Information That Confirms Our Existing Beliefs Rather Than Challenging Them
Like most people, you probably think of yourself as fair-minded, someone who can objectively weigh the evidence. Regardless of any life experiences you have had. Your preexisting belief systems. Past life-changing experiences relevant to the subject matter of the case.
And that could very well be true, that you could consider a situation without any of that coming into play. But it would be incredibly, incredibly unusual.
Much more often, people exhibit something called confirmation bias. This is an incredibly common tendency for folks to interpret information in a way that confirms their existing beliefs rather than challenging them.
Sometimes this involves remembering information selectively — a tendency to simply not recall evidence that would challenge their preexisting beliefs.
Other times, this manifests as twisting new information around to an interpretation that supports their belief (instead of a more straightforward one that would challenge it).
How to Counter the Effects of Confirmation Bias
So how do we begin to counter the effects of confirmation bias? To stop falling prey to our tendency to look for information that confirms rather than rebuts our first hunch?
Being aware of the existence of the phenomenon is a good start — but even knowing you have a tendency to do this doesn’t insulate you from all of its effects.
Instead, it’s more effective to follow a process of attempted falsification, whereby you actively seek out information that would discredit your existing beliefs. And give it a fair shake rather than immediately discarding it.
Please see the following posts for more information on this process as well as some questions that can help you work through challenging your own beliefs:
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.