Mirror-Imaging: The Problem of Bias

Humans are inherently biased. When it comes to something as deeply ingrained into our being as politics or religion, we simply cannot help ourselves.

The problem does not lie with our beliefs, but when we use our beliefs to interpret events around us. This is a cognitive trap that in the world of intelligence analysis has been called ‘mirror-imaging.’ In the scientific method, one first proposes a hypothesis, experiments, then comes to a conclusion as the data allows. In politics, however, most people will read some information, come up with a hypothesis, and then fit any further information into their own hypothesis. In the intelligence community, mirror-imaging is a mortal sin, since the whole point of analysis is to provide policy-makers with an unbiased report that states not only what the other side is doing, but what their possible intentions are. 

This is a process that needs to also be examined outside of the world of intelligence. It will come as no surprise to anyone that politicians do this all the time. Cherry-picking data from a report is one of the most obvious examples of mirror-imaging. Politicians are by no means the only party guilty of mirror-imaging, however. Mirror-imaging happens on PolicyMic all the time.

One example of mirror-imaging that stands above the rest in the content produced on PolicyMic is the belief in the power of social media. Articles on this website have mentioned the power of social media websites to organize protests and bring change in the Middle East again and again and again. The truth of the situation, however, is we don’t know how big a role they play, and it is just as likely that their role is vastly overestimated when compared to how it is stated in these articles. If social media were so critical, Mubarak would have been much safer after shutting down the Internet, but we all know he was not. Revolutions are not a new thing, and no massive media outlet was needed to cause the protests that helped bring down the Iron Curtain in the late 80’s.

Then why do we emphasize social media so much? Simple: because we (in this case, Westerners) use it a lot. I would bet that almost everyone that reads this article has their own Facebook and/or Twitter account. Because social media plays such a large role in our lives, we believe that because we see videos and Facebook groups from Egypt or Tunisia, it must play just as large a role in theirs. This is the essence of mirror-imaging: taking one’s own experiences and point of view and applying it to others without first considering the other viable alternatives.

This article is not meant to bash the writing of my colleagues mentioned above. Everyone else writing at PolicyMic can rest assured that they are just as likely to be guilty of mirror-imaging, including me. I could write a whole piece showing examples of mirror-imaging in articles on taxes, on education, on foreign policy, and on health care. 

It is entirely possible and likely that two people will view the same information and come to different conclusions. However, before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), one must make sure that their own experiences and convictions are not obscuring their use and interpretation of information. A good article can state why one believes in something and gives facts to prove it. A great article does the same thing while acknowledging the facts that do not correlate with one’s own argument.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons