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Mar 4 / King Kaufman

What journalists can learn from that gold and white, er, blue and black dress

Remember that insane episode last weekend with the dress that was either white and gold or blue and black? At Craig Silverman writes that that debate offered a lesson every journalist needs to learn.

That lesson is that “We are all at the mercy of our brains and its cognitive processes,” Silverman writes. “The simple truth is our brains process information in ways that can lead us astray. This is something every journalist needs to be aware of and account for in the work we do.”

Silverman continues:

The dress is a reminder that we sometimes see things that aren’t there, misperceive what’s right in front of us, and otherwise fall victim to our own brains.

This is particularly true when it comes to the way we process information. Once we have made up our minds—or decided on an angle for our story—we assimilate information in accordance with that view.

“[W]e humans quickly develop an irrational loyalty to our beliefs, and work hard to find evidence that supports those opinions and to discredit, discount or avoid information that does not,” wrote Cordelia Fine, the author of “A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives,” in The New York Times.

Journalists are told to be aware of the biases of sources. But we must also be constantly aware of, and seeking to mitigate, our own cognitive biases.

Quoting from his Tow Centre research report about online rumors and how news organizations debunk misinformation, Silverman lists and explains five phenomena and biases that can trip up journalists. Here they are, with a brief description of each, but you should read Silverman’s piece for a more thorough explanation of each.

The Backfire Effect: “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”

Confirmation Bias: “For journalists, it often manifests itself as an unwillingness to pay attention to facts and information that go against our predetermined angle for a story.”

Motivated Reasoning: “Whereas confirmation bias is an automatic tendency to notice data that fit with our beliefs, motivated reasoning is the complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more carefully if we don’t like them than if we do.”

Biased Assimilation: “We interpret and understand new information in a way that fits with what we already know or believe.”

Group Polarization: “If we’re speaking with people who share our view, the tendency is for all of us to become even more vehement about it.”