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When a bad story gets in the way of the facts

Beware of confirmation bias when trying to figure out “the truth”

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More than a decade ago, at an animal shelter in southern Virginia, I witnessed a well-to-do woman surrendering her pet because, she said, he didn’t match her new décor.

The moment ate at me, and continues to every now and then—but for different reasons than it did at the time.

Back then, I was relatively new to the animal welfare world, learning as much as I could about the field. I wanted to belong, and almost subconsciously, I had probably started to pick up on the strains of judgement, frustration and subtle misanthropy that sometimes run through our movement. Just as a hammer tends to find a nail, people who’ve seen the tragedy of so many homeless animals can start to see supervillains everywhere.

I certainly saw one in the woman surrendering her cat that day. What a shallow moron, I thought. I hope she trips and spills merlot on that new couch. I walked away thinking that I’d seen concrete evidence of all the terrible suspicions shelter folks often seemed to have about the people coming through their doors.

Here’s what I didn’t think: Maybe there was more to the story, some personal issue that she was embarrassed to convey.

Maybe she was being blasé about the moment to keep from tearing up.

Maybe the cat actually had behavior issues that she didn’t want to reveal, for fear of what it might mean for the cat’s future at the shelter.

Even if none of these possibilities were true, even if she was genuinely a pretty shallow person, I also didn’t think: She’s just one person among hundreds of thousands of people who, each day, get up and kiss and snuggle and feed and groom and love on their cats, and would never dream of giving them up over some weird feng shui freak-out. Like the one red flower in a field of daffodils, she stands out because she’s the exception, not the rule.

I thought about that experience again when I first read Bethany Wynn’s excellent feature, “Shaking off stigmas,” which subscribers can read in the latest issue of Animal Sheltering magazine. We have so many myths in the sheltering and rescue world, and some of them are doing harm to animals. Some we’ve started to debunk—does anyone believe, anymore, that there are legions of Satanists waiting to grab your cats at Halloween, or that pets given as gifts will be abandoned? (I hope not.)

Other myths, though, linger. Many are prime examples of confirmation bias, a phenomenon by which people seek out or interpret events and data not objectively, but in a manner that helps them continue to believe what they already hold to be true. (For another great example, see “your friends’ posts on Facebook for the entirety of this horrible election.”)

Suffering from confirmation bias doesn’t make you dumb; it just makes you human. And here’s the thing: “Human” isn’t bad. “Human” often is a complex mix of qualities—kindness and callousness, laziness and ambition, rationality and unconscious bias, all mixed up in a stew of emotions and past experiences and childhood influences that govern how we respond to the other humans we encounter every single day—who, of course, are toting around their own flawed humanity, too.

It makes our already difficult work even trickier, but it also makes our successes all the more inspiring when they happen. Of all the qualities people have, the capacity to change is the one we have to keep believing in. Because if we stop believing in that, what are we doing in this field?

Read “Shaking off stigmas” to explore some of the myths that are still causing issues in the animal welfare world (and check out the rest of our Nov-Dec issue here.) What experiences have you had with animal welfare myths? Do you have ways of checking yourself for bias? Share them in the comments!

About the Author

M. Carrie Allan is the senior editorial director at The Humane Society of the United States, served as editor of Animal Sheltering magazine for nearly a decade, and has focused on telling the stories of the animal protection movement for even longer. She holds a master’s degree in English and writing and has won awards for her journalism, fiction and poetry, including recognition from the Dog Writer’s Association of American, the Cat Writer’s Association, the Association of Food Journalists, and the James Beard Foundation (where she was a finalist for the work she does in her side-gig, writing about booze and cocktails for the Washington Post). If you think there’s a connection between her longtime commitment to animal welfare work and her interest in a good drink . . . well, aren’t you the smart one?