When you talk to people about why they fear certain breeds, or why they support breed-specific legislation, you will often hear statements like, “I’m always hearing about pit bull attacks in the news” or “Certain dogs are bred to be more aggressive/do more damage/be unpredictable.” There isn’t any substantial truth in any of those statements, but the more they are repeated, the more they are presumed to be true.
It can be frustrating to attempt a meaningful discussion when someone believes something simply because they have heard it over and over again. You can debate facts, but it’s hard to argue with someone’s perception. However, you can identify what it is: confirmation bias. Mental Floss has a great article on all the shortcuts our human brains use to evaluate the world around us (and not always accurately!). You can read it here.
Confirmation bias is at work when you hear things like, “it’s always pit bulls that I’m hearing about” or when news reports paint a picture of a pit bull attack epidemic because there were a handful of incidents in a short time frame. If we believe a specific narrative, we are much more likely to remember cases where our beliefs are confirmed, rather than cases that challenge our beliefs.
This happens when you feel that you are “always” hearing about the specific topic or subject matter from friends, in the news, and around the office cooler. Think about the last time you got a new car and then you noticed the same make or model all over the road in subsequent weeks. Our minds are programmed to find patterns and remember them.
Unfortunately, reporters (who are human beings) are also vulnerable to this type of bias. They spend all day looking for stories that will interest their readers or audience. And a big part of their job is to look for patterns and trends. If three “pit bull” stories happen to come across their desk, it’s tempting to report this as a pattern, which makes for a stronger story. If you put that same handful of stories in the context of all dog attacks that happened in BC over the last month or year, the perceived pattern disappears.
If the popular narrative is that “pit bull” attacks are rampant, confirmation bias can also affect victim and bystander reporting. If a person witnesses a dog attack and sees a large dog running from the scene, they may assume it is “another pit bull attack” rather than stopping and asking themselves how much they actually know about that dog’s breed.
If a husky bites a person, for example, the victim might be angry, but if the situation is handled reasonably, they may accept the incident as a bad turn of events and forgive and forget. Now, given the negative publicity surrounding pit bulls, if a pit bull type dog bit that same person, they may see themselves as part of a trend rather than as an isolated incident. This person might be more likely to go to the police or the media because they have heard similar stories reported before.
This is not to say that someone experiencing confirmation bias is less intelligent or more naïve. We all subscribe to it – it’s human nature. But by recognizing it when it happens, we can all get a little closer to the truth.