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Continued: No gray area: Fixed, opposite views of Michael Brown killing may reflect 'confirmation bias'

  • Article by: JESSE WASHINGTON , Associated Press
  • Last update: September 1, 2014 - 1:50 PM

"If one were to view a police officer pointing a gun at someone, and they also view police negatively, they may very well ignore whatever events precipitated the officer drawing his/her weapon, even though that action may have been entirely justifiable," Lou Manza, chair of the psychology department at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, said in an email.

"On the other side," he said, "if one has a favorable view of police, they're going to ignore the alleged assailant's behavior, and simply assume that the police officer is correct, despite the fact that the officer may very well be wrong and unjustified in their actions."

"Confirmation bias is a subtle but strong effect," Manza said, "and once a belief is established, it can be VERY difficult to change it."

This helps to explain why Brown's killing, currently being considered by a Missouri grand jury, has revived a dynamic seen in racial controversy after controversy, from O.J. Simpson to Rodney King to Trayvon Martin: People look at the same information and come to very different conclusions.

In this particular case, with little unambiguous evidence, "people are actually acting very reasonably," said Plous, the Wesleyan professor.

"There is a void, and into that void, people will bring whatever they regard as the most reasonable evidence," he said. "People are trying to make sense of this tragedy using the most compelling evidence they have available."

Such as their own perspectives and experiences.

"We're forced to reconstruct, to remember, to imagine what could have taken place," Plous said, "and those are precisely the conditions when we're likely to see bias."

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