Over the past month one of the best coaches in college football, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, has been in the news regarding allegations of what he knew and didn’t know about domestic abuse from one of his former coaches. Although I’m a big Ohio State fan I’ve not followed the story so closely as to have a strong opinion about the punishment that was recently handed down. However, what has jumped out at me in the social media and regular media spaces is how confirmation bias is driving the discussion.
If the incidents in question had occurred with Alabama’s Nick Saban or Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh I’m sure Buckeye fans would have been crying, “Crucify them!!!” Their ability to find fault would have come quickly and easily. But all this has happened to their coach so they dissected the situation and defended Urban in an almost lawyer-like fashion.
Again, I have no strong opinion on the whole subject because I’ve not read all the new stories. For all I know Urban may have been overzealously pursued because of his name, his position and/or the sensitivity of this subject in light of the #metoo movement. My point here is this; no Buckeye fan would have gone to a fraction of the lengths to make such a defense if the accused had been Jim Harbaugh or Nick Saban. Why? Confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is the human tendency to look for information to support, or confirm, existing beliefs. People don’t have to work at this because it occurs naturally. Over the course of human existence this bias probably helped us survive as a species. For example, if there was a rustling in the woods it was probably safer to assume it was a threat and run rather that thinking it might be friendly and sticking around to check it out.
On a personal level, when was the last time someone you knew, looked up to, or loved was accused of something? How did you react? I’m willing to bet whatever the case you started looking for information to confirm your existing beliefs about the person in question. Rare is the individual who says, “I’m going to go against my existing belief to see if I can prove to myself he or she did it.”
On the flip side, Alabama and Michigan fans, indeed perhaps all non-OSU fans, likely started off with this mindset, “Guilty until proven innocent!” The confirmation bias of those fans is working in exactly the opposite direction as Buckeye fans. I have a hard time imagining any of those fans looking for ways to exonerate the coach of a rival.
Unlike the days of our ancestors, what we believe is seldom a matter of survival. That means we’re afforded the luxury of time to try our best to set aside our biases and look to make a more rational, thoughtful decision. While life and death may not be at stake, there’s still potentially great harm to ourselves and others when we simply cave to default thinking on serious issues.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC and Learning Director for State Auto Insurance. His Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed nearly 150,000 times! Watch it and you’ll learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.