It can be difficult, especially in a time of crisis, to dispassionately assess for errors our own positions and potential biases. After accumulating a certain amount of information, and developing an opinion, we are often susceptible to intake bias, meaning that we only digest information that satisfies what we already believe to be true, which only serves to continuously bolster the mental barricade inside which our opinion is safe from scrutiny.
Because of this, when we then encounter information that could invalidate, or even simply modify, our personal understanding of an issue, we do one of two things. Rather than utilize the data to reassess and possibly modulate our opinion, we find a way to justify a rejection of this new information, or we take a more straightforward tack, and simply lock it out.
We are all guilty of intake bias to some degree in every aspect of life, which is partly why our political landscape looks the way it does, with tribal loyalties often trumping data or reason. We have now seen intake bias infect our thinking as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Every American has an opinion on how to best move forward, and that opinion is informed by a multiplicity of factors. A problem arises when our brain-barricades are struck from the outside with incongruent information. We stiffen up and secure the locks more tightly, eventually shutting out even the most persuasive arguments.
We may bristle at proponents of stringent lockdown orders. We may have lost our job, or seen friends and family lose their jobs. We may be surviving paycheck to paycheck, and living in a state in which the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths have been minimal. We may have had to go to a food bank for the first time in our lives. We may see the extraordinary impact that a long-term, economic shutdown would have on the population, including increased poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, and other extant complications. In any number of ways, we may see reopening the economy as the priority.
On the other hand, we may fume seeing protesters failing to show personal responsibility as it pertains to social distance and facial coverings because we have first-hand experience with how gravely this disease affects certain populations. We may have seen family members deteriorate and die on ventilators after contracting COVID-19. We may see the 46,600+ death toll in the United States as something against which significant mitigation efforts should be taken. We may have a larger number of nurses and doctors in our friends and family circles providing us with a greater sense of the magnitude of the virus. In any number of ways, we may be predisposed to see this illness in a more severe light than others.
Our personal experiences will bend the lens through which we see this pandemic, and that’s normal. What’s toxic is the unwillingness to accept the possibility that part or all of our established understanding could be less well-rounded than we would like to believe it is.
Viewpoints are rarely categorically wrong, but even admitting to having blind spots that might impact the way we perceive a given issue is challenging. In order to allow our perspective to change, we must acknowledge, even within ourselves, that our previous thinking was either wholly erroneous, partially mistaken, or tethered to outmoded information. This admission can make us feel foolish, which is why we fight so intensely against it. But here’s the thing, we should only feel foolish if we stick to our guns even in the face of compelling information – because that’s what a fool does. Augmenting an opinion as a result of hearing new or cogent arguments is the opposite of foolish.
In this time of crisis, as people suffer and die from a novel virus, as people lose their jobs in the blink of an eye and cannot feed their family, as state governments tighten their grip on power, as Americans stand up against creeping authoritarianism, be open to the very real possibility that your perspective might be enhanced by taking the time to truly listen to those with whom you disagree. Failure to do so will only exacerbate the widening divide among Americans being facilitated by the media and politicians. In a time when the decisions that we and our leaders make will have a greater immediate impact on life and death than in the last 100 years, a more fractious and bitter nation can only do more harm.