The Student

Theatre / Political / New Writing, Summerhall, Venue 26, 11:50 until 29th August.

Confirmation is a stunning solo performance by Chris Thorpe, tackling confirmation bias and the challenge of talking to people with whom we profoundly disagree.

Part of the Northern Stage programme at Summerhall, and jointly produced by Chris Thorpe and Rachel Chavkin, this is in some ways a minimalist performance, done with few props: two chairs, a microphone, and most importantly, Chris himself.

Chris shouts more than he talks us through confirmation bias and his efforts to have an ‘honourable dialogue’ with a white supremacist. He has audience members partake in this, as he constructs an image in our minds of the very human Glen, our racist protagonist… and the two characters, and their ideologies, liberal and supremacist, begin to interchange, even to blur.

Can we consider opinions and arguments we disagree with, have decent discussions with those we politically oppose? In the end, this piece is ambiguous, but suggests we can at least try and have that discussion, try to be aware of our natural disinclination to consider evidence that challenges our views. It also suggests that we need to work against that natural instinct to think in terms of us and them.

The whole piece reflects upon the themes of Jon Ronson’s book Them: Adventures with Extremists, where the writer explores and gets to know conspiracy theorists, and at the bizarre fact as well as the fiction in their views (spoiler alert: Ronson doesn’t find evidence that the moon landings were faked or that the world is run by giant lizards, but that doesn’t stop the book being both entertaining and thought-provoking).

Chris Thorpe was brilliantly expressive and made full use of the space, and of interaction with the audience on all four sides. This is 85 minutes of monologue that feels like dialogue, his attempt to get out of his own mind.

The one part where the show went awry was an attempt to demonstrate confirmation bias, using a game where the audience is given three numbers, with an unknown rule connecting them. Known as the ‘Wason Rule Discovery Test’, this claims to show that people tend towards positive tests – that will confirm their beliefs – rather than testing with examples which might disprove their belief, such as a random set of numbers.

Perhaps I misunderstood what we as the audience were being asked to do, but this test will only work to demonstrate people’s confirmation bias where they are asked to try and identify the rule, using other sets of numbers to see if they fit. Instead, we were asked to think of a rule that could connect the three numbers, and give another set of three numbers using this. This wasn’t done, and I came out of this game wondering how it was supposed to prove anything. In any case, I suspect that my approach to this puzzle may reflect exercises I was given during secondary school mathematics more than it reflects ‘hard-wired’ cognitive tendencies.

In any case, demonstrating this experiment fully would take far more audience participation than fit with the manner of the rest of this performance, and perhaps another experiment would work more effectively.

Ideally, I would also like to see more discussion of the institutional structures and changes needed to tackle some of these issues: how do we make sure we have a media that facilitates dialogue between different viewpoints, for example.

Nonetheless, this were but minor problems with this unique and captivating performance.

Image courtesy of The Independent//Sarah Stribley Productions