Selective Perception

It never ceases to amaze me how people tend to hear what they want to hear or see what they want to see even in the most obvious situations that are not open to misinterpretation. My most recent book Abuse in the Jewish Community has offered me so many examples of this phenomenon. I have been accused of bashing entire communities in the book especially by people who have not read the book. When I ask them if they read Abuse they reply meekly “No” but they quickly add that they “know exactly what must be written.” I have also been accused of suggesting in the book that every Jewish family should have a television and computer with unlimited access and no filters for everyone, including children. One person even told me that he read it on page 60 of the book. Just to be ceratin that such a suggestion does not appear on that page I checked the book. Maybe I didn’t know what I wrote so I perused the entire book again. Could there be something there that I said that may be even minutely interpreted that way? Well, there isn’t. But apparently some people see it there regardless.

I know that I try very hard to not misinterpret some information but I also know that scientifically it is likely inevitable and will happen on occasion. Confirmatory or Confirmation bias, the very human tendency to search for data or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs, is likely universal although to a greater or lesser degree in different people given their unique biases. This is not the same as dissembling or being evasive which is akin to lying. Confirmatory bias is not accepting, not even processing, the information that is available.

The theory of confirmation bias comes with a corollary which suggests that the better educated an individual the less likely they will misinterpret information. Unfortunately, that seems not to be the case in some very important situations. Take Peter Beinart, a very well educated individual who wrote an op ed for the New York Times suggesting that the only way to resolve the problems with the Palestinians is to boycott the “so called” settlements. His bias prevents him from even suggesting that the Palistinians have a hand in not offering to come to the table and work out a solution, despite the massive evidence that is available. Or take the sickening situation of Toulouse. Commentators, myself included, are lining up on either side of the lone gunman versus the terror network theories; on this being the death knell of European humanity plunging the entire continent in to a Dark Age of Islamic fundamentalism versus the reslience of the continent to control extremism. Perhaps the biggest issue for some pundits is just why the French have been so supportive of the Jewish community when in the past they may have not been. All are perhaps interesting ideas but all tend to be presented with a bias.

My personal bias is that an attack of the type that occurred in Toulouse was inevitable. The first attack against the three paratroopers in some ways reminded me of the Fort Hood situation. After that attack there were all kinds of calls to begin screening, even surreptitiously, and profiling some people to protect US citizens. My bias is to promote that type of detective work. After all, if you have nothing to hide there should not be a problem. When the New York City Police Department began doing this in the Muslim communities of the New York metropolitan area there was a major uproar. This uproar is the bias of the civil libertarians. A non-biased view would suggest a balance between the two positions of preparing but not completely trashing civil liberties.

Unfortunately I have a further bias. It is more of a fear. An attack on children can and likely will happen elsewhere. Perhaps not immediately but, it will. The data seems evident to me. We have to take the precautions necessary to protect our children and ourselves. Most police departments are preparing for a terror attack. We should let them do so.


About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and a 2018 APA Presidential Citation Awardee. He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."