What is Confirmation Bias and Why You Must Pay Attention to It?

Updated June 24, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.
confirmation cognitive bias

To understand confirmation bias, you must imagine living your childhood in an environment where the people in your life ignored you. You grew up feeling like nobody hears or understands you. Now fast forward thirty years, and you find yourself married with your own family. One day, you call your wife from an adjacent room, and, although you can hear her doing something there, she doesn’t answer you. Do you immediately infer that she’s ignoring you? Maybe even get a little mad about it? That might be a sign of a cognitive bias that’s driven by your childhood history.

What Is Confirmation Bias?

thinking brain Confirmation bias is the general need that we all have to look into a pile of evidence and only choose the parts that validate the things we believe to be true.

As I wrote in an article on values and beliefs, these two concepts lie at our character’s deepest core. The beliefs we have about ourselves and the world shape our attitudes and behaviors. Because we’ve guided our life through the prism of those beliefs, questioning them is inherently challenging because that would mean questioning our entire existence.

Let’s say that you are a person who believes in God, and you’ve lived your entire life as a believer. Then, let’s assume that somehow there appears irrefutable evidence that proves that God is not real and that everything that has ever been written about God is not true. Imagine the shock this would give to a person as they reflect and look back upon their life; the core of their entire existence would be under question. A similar thing would happen to an atheist if irrefutable evidence appeared that God is real.

Our Reality Must Make Sense

So, confirmation bias is our way of maintaining the sanity of our reality, regardless of whether that reality is objectively real or made up. We want our world to appear stable and unchanging, and, most importantly, we want the things that define our life to be validated. If they were not true, we would have to question our life and decisions and, perhaps, even accept that they are wrong, which, as you might imagine, is something that most people hate with a passion.

This concept becomes apparent when you observe two people discussing a highly subjective topic, such as politics, for example. Pick any item up for debate and allow those two people to make their points. You will notice that the person at one end of the spectrum gives you several examples that prove their positions’ validity, while the other person does the same but invalidating them. Each person is swift to dismiss the other’s evidence as being unfounded. Especially in politics, people throw the “fake news” or “conspiracy theory” jibes around to reject the opposite opinion.

People are virtually blind to each other's evidence so long as it doesn't support their beliefs. Click To Tweet

In other words, confirmation bias acts like blinders, allowing us only to see those pieces of evidence which support our beliefs and making us either dismiss or simply ignore the opposite. It’s one way in which we lie to ourselves to cope with reality.

Where Does Confirmation Bias Manifest?

point of view confirmation bias Superstitions fall into this category, and many people around the world will do strange things because of them. You will see people who turn around and take an alternate route because a black cat has crossed their way. You will meet people who dare not say or do something during a sports game because they believe that by doing so, they might influence the game’s result.

Usually, these people cling to an incident they have mentally connected with and now have difficulty letting go of. A person who maintains the black-cat-bad-luck superstition might tell you about a day when a black cat had crossed their path, and something terrible happened. The same person will ignore all the other times when something terrible happened, and no cat had crossed their way, as well as other times when cats had crossed their way, and nothing happened. In their mind, those are the exceptions, not the rule.

What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.Warren Buffett

Confirmation Bias Examples

I’ve already discussed religion and superstition, but there are other places where confirmation bias is prevalent. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the most prevalent of places: news and social media.

When you turn on the news, where do you go? Well, I bet that you go to a conservative news site if you are a conservative-thinking person. On the other hand, if you are a liberal, you’ll switch to a liberal news site. Why do we do this?

Deep down, we strongly believe that only those channels will provide us with the truth, while others will try to deceive us. How far is that from turning us  cynical and make us believe that not only the other side is not telling the truth, but they are actively  trying to deceive us and push their “agenda.”

Starts to sound like a conspiracy theory? In our minds, it is. Our brains fabricate it. There’s no way we would consider for a moment that we are unreasonable. It must be “them.” That sounds crazy, and to some extent, it is. But it’s also okay.

After all, you can’s spend every single day trying to break your beliefs with new information. That, too, would be exhausting. Confirmation bias lets you find that place of comfort. The only trick here is not to let that comfort turn into complacency or, worse, obliviousness. Yes, you use confirmation bias to protect your self-esteem (because you validate your beliefs), and that gives you confidence, but you must be self-aware enough to not let that blind you from the truth.

So, Should We Kill Confirmation Bias?

opinions Now, is confirmation bias always bad? As a matter of fact, it isn’t. Confirmation bias is like a self-defense mechanism for our psyche. It makes us feel safe. Not having any confirmation bias means that in every single instance, when we are presented with evidence, we’d have to drop everything and get into analysis mode until we can get to the bottom of the truth.

Although that would make for a much more reasonable, common-sense, and logical world, it would also be an impossibility because not everyone has the capacity, time, and desire to learn the truth all the time. Instead, we form opinions based on the information and experiences of our past lives. Then we give those opinions permanence in our minds by continually looking for ways to back them up.

The reverse of the coin, though, is also true-confirmation bias can lead to significant problems when the people who experience it are in positions of power.

Think about the gun control debate in the United States. The Internet is filled with people posting infographics about the number of deadly shootings in the US, comparing them with the rest of the world. People who are against guns and for gun control will use them as evidence of their beliefs. People who are pro-gun and against gun control will use other infographics that show the number of home invasions and how guns proved vital to saving lives. I’m not here to debate which one is right, although I am a strong proponent of gun control. But you can see how such a polarizing issue demonstrates the concept of confirmation bias.

People who hate guns will only post images and articles supporting their opinion, completely ignoring any material that is evidence to the contrary. As a matter of fact, people who have such beliefs will not even read or attempt to understand any type of opposing evidence due to a deep fear that they might find something that makes sense in there, which would shake the foundation of their belief.

Other common topics where people have strong opinions and will argue them passionately without having full scientific knowledge include climate change, vaccination, food items, health, and many more.

Is Confirmation Bias New?

thucydides confirmation bias It sounds like confirmation bias is a modern problem at first sight, but in reality, it’s one of the oldest human attributes. It’s a mental model and, since most mental models have been consistent for a very long time, we can find various forms of it going back to ancient history. In his book, The History of the Peloponnesian War, written around the year 400BC, the Athenian historian Thucydides wrote that “it is a habit of humanity to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.”

Confirmation bias, much like most cognitive biases, can be interpreted as mental shortcuts. It is far more efficient for the brain to go to existing proof than to re-do an in-depth analysis whenever presented with evidence to the contrary. Sometimes, this might result from idola tribus, or “idols of the tribe.” When belonging to a group or tribe, you must adopt that group’s beliefs and systems of thinking to become accepted as a member. For example, you cannot be a member of the Flat Earth Society unless you believe that the earth is, indeed, flat. This goes hand in hand with our innate desire to belong.

Sometimes, the need to find and belong to a tribe is stronger than the need to find the truth. Click To Tweet

Sir Francis Bacon studied these concepts back in the 1600s as he developed empiricism—a theory that emphasizes empirical evidence rather than traditions. He wrote that “the human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion, draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects.”

Controlling Confirmation Bias

identity confirmation bias Interestingly, confirmation bias is challenging to overcome because, to do so, you must be aware of it. The core of confirmation bias is based on a lack of awareness and, most importantly, on a desire never to gain such awareness. For example, people who believe in God have no desire to look for evidence that God doesn’t exist. That’s counterintuitive. Similarly, atheists have no desire to find proof that God does exist. Both groups reject that awareness, so it is impossible to sense the confirmation bias when it happens.

Therefore confirmation bias clouds one’s judgment and influences decision-making, sometimes radically. As I mentioned above, this is quite critical when such biases are present in people who are in a position of power. Think about cult leaders and the idola tribus concept. Once members of the cult have been brainwashed, brainwashing manifests itself through the confirmation bias: As the only reality is the reality presented by the cult’s ideology, all evidence to the contrary is rejected. Everything else turns into proof for the cult’s agenda.

This is dangerous and has led to many pointless victims throughout history. Although confirmation bias is a self-defense mechanism and provides a well-needed mental shortcut in many instances, falling prey to it with no thoughtfulness is dangerous.

As humans, we have a strong desire to believe. We also have a deep need to belong. Believing and belonging give the world around us shape and make it nest-like. If we are surrounded by people who understand us, we feel safe, so we seek those little islands in life. Once we grab onto one, it’s hard to let go. It’s difficult to push yourself back into the middle of the ocean, surrounded by the unknown. It’s much safer to justify your place and your thoughts than to challenge them. But, sometimes, it’s needed.

And yet, you can’t live your entire life exclusively through this prism. You must spend some time questioning the status quo and reflecting. You must challenge your beliefs every so often. If the research you do takes you to the same place, so be it. But if it starts to shake your very foundation, don’t fear that. Embrace it. You might discover a more real reality, and you can’t know ahead of time if it could be a better reality for you.

Conclusion

As I said above, catching our own confirmation biases is extremely hard, even if we consider ourselves an open-minded, truth-seeking kind of person. In the end, we all have biases, but we can try to observe those that are strongest. They might be an indication of something that we’re missing, a blind spot. By honing in on that and deliberately looking for information on the opposite, we can understand if our bias is actually rooted in reality or just something we’re carrying with us.

Other Resources on Confirmation Bias

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. Can you reflect and identify some of your biases?
  2. Can you think of a time that bias affected your life negatively?
  3. What are the biases you see in others that bother you the most?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!

iulian-ionescu


Tags

beliefs, mindset, weaknesses


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