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Examples of Confirmation Bias and How to Think Critically

This image, an example of confirmation bias, is often posted on social media when mass shootings occur

This image, an example of confirmation bias, is often posted on social media when mass shootings occur

Whenever a white man commits a mass shooting or another kind of high-profile attack, you will inevitably come across the argument that his actions will be written off as mental illness, an excuse not used for men of color. Yet mental illness is generally considered a factor in mass shootings regardless of the race of the shooter. Below are some examples.

Examples of Media Reports of Mental Illness in Minority Killers

On October 24, 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested for killing ten people in the Beltway sniper attacks. Muhammad had converted to Islam years before the attack. Just days later on October 30, the New York Post ran an article titled Kin Reveal Shooter’s ‘Terrible’ Inner Torment. These are some lines from the article:

“Terrible childhood and losing child-custody battles in the courts, ex-wife Carol Williams said on Larry King Live.”

"Gulf War post-traumatic-stress syndrome that caused him to “just jump out of his sleep and scream” if he’d so much as hear a door slam, nephew Edward Williams Jr., 19, suggested."

In fact, many in the media wondered if during Muhammad's service in the Gulf War he had been exposed to toxic chemicals. Some went so far as to suggest US military policies essentially created the violent individual who carried out the attacks.

"He was a very angry man...The one I knew stayed in Saudi.”

When Richard Rojas deliberately plowed his car through a crowd in Times Square in New York City killing one and injuring 22, his mental state was repeatedly brought up as a factor beginning the day of the attack. Even right-wing Breitbart had the headline, Reports: Times Square Murder Suspect Richard Rojas Mentally Ill, High on Drugs During Attack:

"Law enforcement officials told The New York Times that Rojas said he heard voices and had hallucinations. He also talked about provoking the police to kill him...Rojas served in the Navy between 2011 and 2014 before being court martialed, the Associated Press reported. A friend of his told the outlet that he had been having a rough time since being discharged and had been posting “crazy stuff” online..."

The mental health system was a factor in the massacre at Virginia Tech carried out by Seung Hui Cho, according to many articles:

"The missing mental health records of Seung Hui Cho, released Wednesday afternoon, provide more evidence that Virginia Tech's counseling center and the state's mental health system failed to recognize, communicate and treat the gunman's increasingly erratic behavior."

This is a headline from the New York Daily News: Letter from Jiverly Wong, the gunman in the Binghamton massacre, shows insight into paranoid mind.

"Just before setting off on his massacre, he sent a two-page delusional rant to a Syracuse television station saying the police were spying on him, sneaking into his home and trying to get into car accidents with him."
-- Binghamton Killer Kept His Fury Private, New York Times

According to the CBS News article Army reservist who killed 5 Dallas officers showed symptoms of PTSD, Micah Johnson suffered from severe mental illness:

"Micah Johnson had sought treatment for anxiety, depression and hallucinations, telling doctors that he experienced nightmares after witnessing fellow soldiers getting blown in half. He also said he heard voices and mortars exploding..."

This is a CNN headline related to Gavin Long who killed three police officers in Baton Rouge, LA in 2016:

"Gavin Long said he suffered from PTSD, source tells CNN"

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The same day Noah Green killed a U.S. Capitol Police officer and injured another, USA Today published an article titled, Suspect in attack at U.S. Capitol went from jock to posting about paranoia, extremist groups.

"'I know people say this all the time, but the guy who I played with is not the same person who did this,' said [Andre] Toran, a reporter at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky."

"Toran shared a Facebook post from Green during the COVID-19 pandemic in which Green accused his roommates of drugging him. Green wrote that he'd moved out but was suffering from withdrawals that included seizures and a lack of appetite, along with 'paranoia' and 'depression.' He wrote in the post that he was also experiencing 'suicidal ideation.'"

An example of a nonwhite killer getting sympathetic media coverage

So, if mental illness as a factor is frequently brought up when an attacker is a person of color, what explains the widespread belief that it's a privilege reserved for white men?

Confirmation bias is a likely explanation. Confirmation bias occurs when people actively seek out information that confirms existing opinions while avoiding sources that contradicts them. While this sounds very deliberate, confirmation bias is usually subconscious. When people either want something to be true or when they repeatedly hear that something is true, they will believe it's true regardless of what evidence and facts actually show. Information that confirms prior beliefs or prejudices jumps out at them, while those that are contradictory don't stand out.

When reading an article about a white mass shooter, any mentions of mental illness stand out because those mentions either confirm something that is already believed or something that is often heard. Those mentions reinforce the belief that white shooters' actions are explained away as illness, a benefit not afforded to nonwhites. When mental illness is brought up when covering the actions of a person of color, that fact doesn't stand out because it conflicts with preexisting beliefs, or it contradicts something people often hear.

Societal Effects of Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias can have significant effects on society. An example of this is Donald Trump winning the presidency partly by exploiting fears that immigrants entering the United States are a significant source of crime.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best...They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

This statement suggests that most Mexican immigrants are dangerous and a few are good. Yet the evidence shows the opposite. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Many Americans falsely believe that hordes of dangerous criminals are crossing our borders and committing crimes but according to a study by the Cato Institute that isn't true:

"As a percentage of their respective populations, there were 56 percent fewer criminal convictions of illegal immigrants than of native-born Americans in Texas in 2015. The criminal conviction rate for legal immigrants was about 85 percent below the native-born rate."

If a person already holds the belief that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are more dangerous than native-born Americans, crimes by members of those groups will jump out at them. The killing of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts is an example of this. Her murder received a lot of attention in right-leaning media because her killer was an undocumented immigrant. This is a case of people seeking out an example that confirms pre-existing beliefs even though conviction rates prove that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit most types of crime, including homicide.

How to Counter Confirmation Bias

Since confirmation bias is the tendency to look for information that supports what you already believe, and ignore information that disputes what you believe, the way to counter it is to look for evidence that proves you wrong. In other words, think critically and look at evidence objectively. And if evidence proves a belief you hold is wrong, you should reject it. Ideally, people should seek out neutral media sources since right-leaning and left-leaning media sources are often selective in their reporting, deliberately giving their audiences information that leads to a particular belief even if that belief is wrong.

An example of this is the insistence in right-leaning media that President Barack Obama's economic policies were disastrous for job creation while President Donald Trump's policies led to a booming economy. In fact, average job growth was higher during the last two years of Obama's presidency than the first two years of Trump's. A media outlet that wants people to vote Republican has little incentive to provide facts that don't help their side. By seeking out multiple sources of information, it becomes harder for people with agendas to manipulate us.

In How Confirmation Bias Affects You Every Single Day, Psychology Today recommends asking the following questions when consuming information:

  • Which parts did I automatically agree with?
  • Which parts did I ignore or skim over without realizing?
  • How did I react to the points which I agreed or disagreed with?
  • Did this post confirm any ideas I already had? Why?
  • What if I thought the opposite of those ideas?

© 2017 LT Wright

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