Why A Responsible Opinion Is Tougher Than We Think
June 20, 2016

Why A Responsible Opinion Is Tougher Than We Think

Mrs. Short owned two multi-million dollar oceanfront homes. One was in Victoria, B.C. It’s one of the most expensive cities in Canada. Her other home was in Bermuda. When I was a university student, she paid me to do odd jobs around her garden. On one occasion, before she left for Bermuda, she asked me to get rid of a dense patch of English ivy. Fighting puberty would have been easier.

Expensive cities with mild climates, like Victoria, attract polar demographics. Rich people flock there. But so do the poor. Many of the poor live in Victoria’s Tent City. It’s like a third world mess of tents, needles and (sometimes) feces. It’s in front of the courthouse, not far from rows of million dollar homes.

Tent City didn’t exist back in 1990. But even then, plenty of homeless people sat on the streets. They begged for money and work.

As I pulled ivy, I thought about the people I had seen on my way to Mrs. Short’s home. With dirt-stained fingers and grazed knuckles, I tossed my pitchfork aside. I needed help. So did they.

Mrs. Short paid me $10 an hour. I figured it would take me about 20 hours to get rid of all the ivy. But if I were part of a team of four, we could finish the job in an afternoon. She would pay me the same $200, but I would split the money with others. Mrs. Short was in Bermuda. She was probably sipping margaritas while a couple of servants rubbed her feet.

Tent City
Photograph By BRUCE STOTESBURY, Times Colonist

I climbed on my bicycle and headed downtown. “Hey buddy,” said a young guy with a dog. “Can you spare any change?” He sat in front of a cardboard sign. It read, “Looking for work. Anything would help!”

I offered him $50 in exchange for 5 hours of labor. That was 26 years ago. Ten dollars an hour was a decent wage. I gave the homeless guy Mrs. Short’s address. If she had known, she would have spilled her margarita.

He agreed to meet me in front of her home at 10 a.m. the next morning. I moved to the next street corner, then the next. I recruited another young guy and a girl.

The next day, I pedaled to work like Julius Caesar: a front-line general with a team to kick some green-rooted butt. Reality, however, hit me by noon.

Nobody showed up. I was angry.

But I still had a soft spot for people who were down on their luck. A few months later, another man on the street told me he was hungry. He wanted cash. Instead, I offered him food. We walked into a café. But when my back was turned, he bolted.

That’s when I began to suffer from Confirmation Bias. It happens when we embrace information that supports a view, while blindly ignoring information that opposes it. In my eyes, all street people were now bums, drug addicts and welfare leeches. They needed to get off their butts and contribute to society. They had no excuses and didn’t deserve my sympathy. I had anecdotal “evidence.” In other words, I had no evidence at all.

Confirmation Bias is blind. Back in 1979, a Stanford University research team brought together two groups of people with opposing views. One group supported the death penalty. The other group opposed it. They were asked to read a carefully balanced essay that showed strong arguments for and against capital punishment. The researchers wanted to see if anyone changed their minds. But nobody did. In fact, when their opinions were later assessed, they clung–even more tightly–to their original views.

Countless studies have revealed much the same thing. In 2008, Drew Westen published The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion In Deciding The Fate of the Nation. He reported a study of brain patterns that were demonstrated through MRI readings. When people were shown either neutral information or information that agreed with their opinions, they processed that information with certain parts of their brain. But when they were shown information that conflicted with their opinions, a different part of their brains went to work. In effect, they worked to block it out.

Tent City’s arrival in Victoria confirmed my bias. But Joon Madriga challenged it. She wrote Rising: strategies for the broke, the at-risk, and those who love them. Ms. Madriga lived on the streets. She described the mountains of obstacles that many street people face. No longer homeless, she wrote a step-by-step guide to help other people. She also re-opened my mind.

I had asked three homeless people to help me with that ivy. I had offered just one man a sandwich in a café. But somebody, out there, would have gladly picked that ivy. Another person would have been thrilled to eat that sandwich.

Confirmation bias is as entwined as ivy root. It might oppose a religion. It might oppose an ethnicity. It might oppose a political candidate or party. But are all of our opinions based on a thorough analysis? Brain-based research, determined by MRI readings, say no. That’s worth thinking about–-especially during an election year.

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