Confirmation bias is a riot
Warning: this blog is a bit more personal/opinion than my usual fare…..
Like many people I’ve been shocked and dismayed by the London riots. I was pondering whether to write a blog post, since it’s hard to find something original or insightful to say. But as an expat-Brit I can’t help but think about this anyway.
On the one hand the scenes seem eerily familiar to those that took place when I was growing up in the UK in the 1980s, but they are also different in many ways that I don’t fully grasp leaving me feeling a little alienated from my homeland.
Looking at the discussions on the riots in the media and through social media there seems to be a near universal agreement that the rioting was unconscionable and that there is a need to quickly restore order and repair the damage done. But the bigger question is why the riots happened and why they spread, but this seems much less clear. And yet understanding this is key to figuring out how to avoid something similar happening in the future.
There are no shortage of people now sharing their theories about the causes which range from inequality to poor parenting to consumerism to moral decline to technology. A recent article by the BBC considers 10 widely differing explanations for the riots that are being discussed. Unfortunately most of the articles seeking to explain the riots also seem to be prime examples of one of the most common cognitive biases – confirmation bias – i.e. to the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
It’s quite likely that the cause of the riots cannot be so clearly identified. Riots and looting are classic examples of emergent events where chaos spontaneously emerges from a complex system which is made up of multiple reinforcing and counteracting factors. It’s quite possible that a number of the explanations that have been given have played some part – but not in an easily unpacked linear fashion, or in a way in which they and the solutions for them can be taken apart and dealt with separately.
Unfortunately this is what is most likely to happen. Understandable public outrage and the need to be seen to respond can easily lead to hasty ill-conceived action that can win popular support but does little to address the true drivers of the situation.
A likely example of this is the public e-petition to stop benefit payments to those found guilty of rioting. (The UK government recently launched a very interesting experiment in public democracy whereby people can submit petitions to the government, and if they receive 100,000 signatures or more are eligible to be discussed in Parliament). While it’s understandable that this petition is popular, it also doesn’t take too much thinking to realize that there are likely to be unanticipated negative consequences.
Among the various “causes” of the riots that have been cited I’d like to take issue to two common and false prejudices (among the many):
1. “The problem is with today’s youth” – it’s remarkably common to cite the lack of respect among “today’s youth” as being a factor behind society’s ills. But there are a few obvious flaws with this argument. Firstly – people have been complaining about moral decline and rebellious youth for a very long time. Take this quote:
“Our youth now love luxury, they have bad manners, contempt for
authority; they show disrespect for elders, and love to chatter in place of exercise. Children are
now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the
room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food and tyrannize
Said not by David Cameron – but by Socrates. It’s not clear that rebellion and lack of respect for authority among the young are anything new or that they are worse now than they have been in the past.
It’s also worth noting that most adolescents did not participate in the riots, and also it seems by looking at those arrested and convicted, many who did participate were not adolescents either.
2. New technology is to blame – either for inciting the riots, enabling the rioters to organize, or for quickly spreading false rumours and causing panic. There is already serious discussion underway in the UK to look at whether social media can and should be shut down during times of crisis.
But social media has also been used to help mobilize public action for the cleanup in an unprecedented way, and is being used by the police and others to help identify and apprehend the perpetrators. Similarly it is being used by the authorities to quickly verify then confirm or dispel reports of violence and looting.
Again complaints about communications technology are nothing new, nor are government attempts to curtail them. The printing press, radio, telephones, television, the internet and now social media have all at various times been accused of fomenting rebellion and aiding wrongdoing. But in the end these tools are just tools that facilitate people’s desire to communicate, connect and organize – and they can be used for both good and bad purposes – and it’s often not as easy as it seems to clearly delineate one from another (Owen Barder and Jeff Jarvis both get into this issue a bit further and explain it much better than I could).
I hope that in the end there will be some serious, and evidence based reflection on what incited the riots and caused them to spread, and that this will include the important question of “why now” to understand the balance between the underlying issues and trends which led to the riots and the sparks that caused them to ignite, also accepting that there is not necessarily any one single cause.
But as with any evidence-based policy discussion, it also seems likely that whatever action is taken will need to take into account not only what analysis and evidence are able to tell us, but also whatever is politically feasible – but let’s hope that the balance is not skewed too far into the latter at the expense of the former.