Saturday, June 21, 2014

Confirmation Bias

When I engage in activities such as this blog, because of my nature, I am usually conducting experiments in the back of my mind. One of those experiments relates to studying the Internet for its possibilities as a useful entity. Since I started the blog, I have been looking at websites that I hadn't seen before. I now believe that earlier I was inappropriately fixated on the NYRB and its blog, and that I had been laboring under some illusions regarding the NYRB's nature and intellectual integrity. Probably because it was one of the few places where one could find in-depth, well-written articles on a variety of topics, and because writers whom I respected such as Tony Judt and Freeman Dyson were contributors, I lulled myself into a false sense of its quality and openness. After examining a variety of websites, I now think that the NYRB is a limited organization that caters to a narrow group, and that most of the ideas that you find there are predictable, because they are the views that their readers want confirmed. There is nothing whatsoever about it that might be construed as cutting-edge.

Beyond the content of the articles in a publication, one gets a sense of its readership from its blog posts. The NYRB appeals to well-educated, relatively affluent liberals who like high quality and think of themselves as having broad interests, though they actually care mainly about hot-button liberal issues and some of the humanities, particularly from an academic viewpoint. They don't care much about science or empirical arguments. This flies in the face of the NYRB's image as a paragon of the open exchange of big ideas. Other less pretentious sites, particularly 3 Quarks Daily, have broader intellectual appeal.  The latter attracts people who are interested in the sciences and philosophy, but also leaves room for virtually all of the humanities. From the standpoint of blog commenting, 3 Quarks Daily is far more open, because it allows posters to post without moderation. Like all websites, it has limitations, but by drawing from many websites, being well-managed, and placing little emphasis on image control, it is much more appealing to me than the NYRB.

Confirmation bias is a topic that has been widely discussed in recent years. I came across it in the context of economics, which now has a branch called behavioral economics, a break from the past, when most economists assumed that people always acted in rational self-interest. They've finally realized that irrationality pervades human life, and they are now rethinking some of their earlier ideas. This research focuses mainly on investor behavior, where, for example, men tend to be unrealistically confident, and women tend to be unrealistically risk-averse. There is now an entire industry based on making money from your investment mistakes. On a broader scale, confirmation bias relates to many other human behaviors, but decision-making is its focus in economics.

In a speculative, anecdotal way, I have been trying determine what kind of person, if there is such a person, would be attracted to this blog. It is hard to obtain much data on this, because very few people look at it at all, and I have access to very little information about those people. Other than a handful of regular readers, I get new readers who click on a link to this site that shows up when I make posts on other blogs. I can't always tell much about where they are located other than their country, but often I can also determine their city. As you would expect, most of the pageviews are from the U.S., since most of the websites I comment on are in the U.S. and a very large chunk of English-language Internet activity is in the U.S. What surprises me is that I seem to be more likely to be viewed in Iceland, Ukraine, Russia or China than in the northeast U.S. where I live. This makes me ask what websites the people in the northeast go to.

The answer, which I can't prove, is probably that they are going to websites that are familiar to them and that present worldviews with which they are comfortable. That would not be unlike me when I regularly went to the NYRB website. I get the impression that the Internet is relatively ghettoized, and it seems to be dominated by commercial organizations like and Facebook that herd people into some sort of profit model by meeting their human needs. In the context of this post, one might say that they are drawn to sites that affirm their worldviews, don't challenge them much, and make them feel good about themselves: their biases are confirmed. In theory, American viewers are more satisfied with their lives and don't feel as much need to explore as the residents of Russia or China. Of course, there are other reasons why people in Russia or China might be interested in this blog, but I'm assuming for the moment that these pageviews are not from criminal organizations or government spies.

The working hypothesis that I've arrived at is that most Americans think they already know enough and don't need to know much more: they certainly don't need to extend themselves beyond their comfort zones. Thus, when commercial organizations such as the NYRB, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and so on, beckon them, whispering "Narcissism is OK," they happily indulge. That only leaves dissatisfied people in less privileged countries who stand outside and look in through the window out of curiosity. Here in the U.S., we are easily distracted from the underlying chaos of our existence by the Murti-Bing pills* freely dispensed by the government and corporations alike.

*From The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz.

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