By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
This article is the second part of a two-part series on confirmation bias and how it affects human reasoning.
In the first part of this article series, I introduced the concept of confirmation bias and explained how people of all backgrounds fall victim to it in different contexts. In this second part, I will examine the 2020 presidential election and examine how confirmation bias has been on full display among supporters of former President Donald Trump.
The Fox News Network and Confirmation Bias among Its Viewers
For the last four years, the Fox News Network has served largely as a sounding board for the philosophies and agendas of the Trump administration. Morning and evening talk shows on the network regularly sang Trump’s praises, and its broadcasters defended Trump’s words and actions whenever they came under scrutiny.
But following the 2020 election, Fox News joined the other major networks in acknowledging the legitimate victory of now-President Joseph Biden. In fact, Fox was the first network to call the state of Arizona for Biden, one of the key swing states that ultimately led to Biden’s win.
At that point, many Fox News viewers looked at the network’s recognition of reality as an act of betrayal against Trump, who had begun to spin unsupported claims of election fraud and foul play. Faced with this change from Fox News, many viewers fell into the pervasive trap of confirmation bias. They chose not to reconsider their own beliefs as they relate to Trump’s claims, but instead sought out a new source of information that would re-affirm their established position on the 2020 election and many other political talking points.
The abandonment of Fox News by Trump supporters should not be surprising. Many Trump supporters effectively handcuffed themselves to the 45th President of the United States through their active participation in political dialogue and support for his personality and the ideals that he espoused. In addition to voting for him, Trump’s supporters shared political opinions on social media websites such as Facebook, wore political apparel such as the infamous “Make America Great Again” hats and used other forms of open, public endorsement.
But when Trump lost the election and baselessly claimed fraud, these supporters were backed into a corner with only two choices. One option was to acknowledge that the President was being dishonest.
However, declaring Trump’s dishonesty would undermine Trump’s credibility and all the support he received for years. After all, if his supporters admitted that Trump was wrong and dishonest now, then doesn’t that call into question everything else he’s ever said and done, and everything on which his supporters have backed him? And what does that say about them?
The other option was to simply find a different news network that would continue to serve up the “Kool-Aid.” It feels much better to be told that you’re right and to be given a means of squaring pre-established beliefs with reality, often through conspiracy theories and nonsensical conjecture. And so viewers switched in droves to far-right extremist networks like Newsmax, which were happy to shamelessly endorse the lies coming from Trump.
We Should Value Truth Above Unquestioning Loyalty to People or Ideas
In this new age where objective reality is under siege, it is critical that we — the citizens of the United States, from all political leanings and dispositions — put the value of truth above loyalty to people or ideas. If a claim is incorrect, it’s incorrect. If a person is being dishonest, he or she is being dishonest. We should not be more afraid of the social embarrassment of rescinding our support for misinformation than we are of the ramifications of abandoning truth and reality in the interest of what feels good.
Embracing Confirmation Bias Is Easy, But Wrong
Without a doubt, embracing confirmation bias is the easier road. Proper introspection and the vetting of one’s own beliefs requires tedious research. That work often involves the gathering of information from several different sources and a careful, thorough assessment of where the facts lie amidst the “spin” that is present to some degree or another in virtually every news network, regardless of their claims about truth and objectivity.
The fate of our society literally depends on our ability to reconcile and understand truth. Thomas Jefferson famously said that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
Without a firm grasp of reality, we risk sliding down a slippery slope into conspiracy, demagoguery and mistrust of absolutely everything. We already saw the beginnings of this willingness to disbelieve what clearly was reality under the Trump administration. For example, the former President and his officials would routinely challenge the most basic, observable facts and circumstances, such as whether Trump’s inaugural crowd was bigger than President Obama’s and even whether it was raining outside at the time.
So it is incumbent upon all of us to resist the temptation to look only for evidence that supports what we think is true or what we would like to be true. No one is immune to confirmation bias, and we all fear the loss of dignity that might come with acknowledging an error. But to err is to be human, and there is no shame in that.
The shame and loss of dignity comes in doubling down on an error when we have the means of discovering and correcting it. If we take the time to recognize confirmation bias and combat it, we put the welfare of the society in which we live ahead of our own personal prerogatives. And I can’t think of anything more dignified than that.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.