Almost all of us suffer from a condition called confirmation bias.
This is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.
For instance, I don’t follow a bunch of mommy bloggers railing against genetically modified food or food bloggers extolling the virtues of unpasteurized milk. In the same vein, those folks probably don’t want to hear what scientists or farmers say.
Agriculture has many initiatives underway to tell our side of the food story, and while these efforts are all laudable, the critical flaw is confirmation bias. People don’t seek out opinions that disagree with what they already believe.
You can produce the best documentary or the best article in the world about the benefits and safety of, for instance, GM food, but you’ll be preaching largely to the converted. The people who take the time to consider what you present will primarily be those who already agree.
Yes, we should reach out to the consuming public, and yes, agriculture needs to tell its story, but we need to be realistic about how difficult it is to change attitudes that have already become ingrained.
Of course, public opinion can and does change. For evidence, you have to look no further than the federal election results.
Even Albertans can elect a different stripe of government once every four decades. Still, it takes a lot to convince hard core party supporters of any stripe to change their allegiance.
In the current Saskatchewan election, most of what you hear is from either the Saskatchewan Party or the NDP. There is only a remote possibility that the Progressive Conservative, Liberal or Green par-ties will elect a single member. Still, it’s interesting to hear ideas from other parties, and for that reason they can fulfill a useful function in the democratic process.
Some level of confirmation bias is valuable.
Our new federal agriculture minister, Lawrence MacAulay, seems like a nice guy, but several months into his job he appears to have few opinions and almost no agenda. Eventually, he’ll need to make some decisions, even though you can never please everyone.
MacAulay’s approach thus far is in stark contrast to the former agriculture minister, Gerry Ritz.
While he wasn’t universally liked, Ritz worked toward clear objectives. On some topics, such as the Canadian Wheat Board, his mind was made up and he didn’t bother to listen to other views.
On other topics, such as railway performance during the grain movement backlog, he demonstrated the ability to change his viewpoint.
As farmers, our production decisions are greatly influenced by confirmation bias. One example is equipment brand loyalty.
Price, reliability, dealer service, parts availability and resale value should all be part of the equation when deciding what colour of tractors and combines to run. Some producers, however, become so brand loyal that they’ll never switch.
On the other side of the coin, you can’t be changing all your production practices on a whim. Having some confirmation bias toward the practices that have been serving you well is warranted and valuable.
A plethora of new products and approaches are thrust upon us every growing season. While following the newest shiny thing is usually a formula for disaster, keeping your eyes open to new possibilities can help a business evolve.
A little bit of confirmation bias is normal, even healthy; too much can be a problem.