Confirmation Bias and Emily Dickinson


A friend recently introduced me to the concept of “confirmation bias” which refers to the human tendency to accept into his/her reality only that which is consistent with a pre-existent bias. In other words, we see things as we want to see them. We see only the “small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness.” (Conrad Aiken). Decades ago I read someone’s observation, “Our thinking is the belated rationalization of conclusions to which we have already been led by our desires.”

Now, of course, being a mere mortal I would like to say that this no longer applies to me, that I have gone a step further and see things clearly, that I see things objectively. But I’ve afraid that I can no longer “lay that flattering unction to my soul” (Hamlet, to his mother). This is a human problem and we cannot escape it. We only see things through a prism, we do not see things objectively.

But, if we understand this notion, it can humble us a bit and we can be a bit less arrogant about our certainties, we can be a bit more accepting of people who are different than us. We might even be a bit more accepting of people who respond to this notion with a blank, bewildered stare!

Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about this tendency to construct our reality and then shut out everything else:

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.
Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.
I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

We do tend to “close the valves of (our) attention like stone” and shut out any further feedback from the world. “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts.”  This is called insanity.



4 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias and Emily Dickinson

  1. waterlexeme

    And yet it is so important at times to push past this tendency and try to grasp, even if only imperfectly, what it means to be “you” not “me”. Empathy is a start, but it’s still the “me” I can relate to in “you”, not the “you” I see in “you”. Objectivity will only get you so far, as you can learn to understand or appreciate things, people or situations from a more objective frame, but you can never love them from there.


    1. literary lew Post author

      I really appreciate your thoughtful response. We are here discussing what I think is the essence of spirituality, that murky and confusing realm between the subject and object. Your thoughts remind me of Buber’s “I and Thou” which I need to read again.

      Thanks again.

      And I really liked that Donald Duck spoof of Glenn Beck!


      1. waterlexeme

        Yeah. I hadn’t really thought of that as spirituality before, but what you are saying makes sense. I’m not really sure what I would define as spirituality. I tend to get very wary around thinking about an intangible subjective viewpoint, as it so often leads back to organised religion, which seems to want to define and nail down everything, I guess because things that are murky make people nervous. It’s difficult to still with something that feels unknowable and be okay with no knowing or defining.


      2. literary lew Post author

        I so agree with you. I am careful where I use the term “spiritual” as it conveys so much baggage in our culture. I have subscribed to your blog and will have time today…I think…to check it out even more thoroughly. It looks very interesting.


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