You probably believe that you are a generally logical person and that you base your opinions on the facts available.
You probably believe that if you came across credible evidence that challenged your opinions, you would be willing to incorporate this new information and alter your thinking.
You would also probably be wrong.
What Does Confirmation Bias Mean?
As human beings, we tend not to base our opinions on all the facts; instead, we search for facts to fit our preconceived ideas. Psychologists call this phenomenon confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias occurs because we live in a world awash with information. Our brains need to use mental shortcuts to make judgments quickly. This causes us to cherry-pick favourable information and ignore/dismiss contradicting information. This means we see only what we want or expect to see.
“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” – Warren Buffet
Not convinced that this applies to you? Look a little deeper:
- Were you an insecure teenager wallowing in self-pity who felt you were ugly because you only compared yourself to your popular, good-looking classmates, while you overlooked the rest of your (average-looking) classmates?
- Do you get on the weighing scale and jump off happily, without double-checking when you see the weight you want to see, but double-check (just to be sure, you know) when it seems you’ve put on a few pounds?
- Is a well-qualified person saying things you agree with an expert, while an equally well-qualified person that you strongly disagree with a clueless hack?
Confirmation bias is subtle, but it sure is sneaky.
The consequences of confirmation bias
Confirmation bias has huge repercussions when you’re trying to argue with someone with the opposite beliefs as you. If you think that the other side believes what they believe because of a lack of information, and will come to see your way if they know everything you know – you are mistaken. There are two main societal consequences to confirmation bias:
Two people can be exposed to the exact same information, and yet can have two very different interpretations, depending on their previously held expectations and beliefs. This is a huge part of why politics is so polarized today. Take the reactions to the Ford-Kavanaugh US Senate hearing in September 2018.
Ford supporters saw a terrified woman bravely doing her civic duty while being opposed by a party that has treated, and continues to treat women badly.
Kavanaugh supporters saw a good man being ripped apart by dubious allegations manufactured by a party trying to cling on to whatever power it has left.
Although we may all be watching the same screen, we see two very different movies.
2. The backfire effect
If you’re trying to change someone’s beliefs (especially very deeply held beliefs) showering them contradicting facts might be the worst thing you can do. They might become victims of the backfire effect. This is when people cling on even more strongly to their positions when challenged with opposing evidence.
The backfire effect is why:
- Anti-death penalty advocates become even more against the death penalty when shown pro-death penalty evidence. The reverse holds true as well.
- Political conservatives became even more convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction prior to US invasion after reading a “comprehensive refutation” of the claim.
It is true that recent research has challenged how prevalent the backfire effect is. But you might still want to be careful the next time you’re tempted to debate a climate change denying, flat earthing, Illuminati believing holocaust denier.
The Psychology behind Confirmation Bias
Why do confirmation bias and the backfire effect occur? Because we really, really do not like to be wrong, especially when it comes to core values. The amygdala is the region of the brain which responds to physical threats. Mental and emotional threats activate the amygdala in exactly the same way.
This means that whether we’re facing a dragon or listening to a TED Talk by our sworn enemy, our amygdalas will start screaming that we need protection. How do our brains protect us from mental threats and the suggestion that we may be wrong? By hiring what I call the “Uncomfortable Truth Destroyers”:
1. The See No Evil, Hear No Evil Monkeys:
The See No Evil, Hear No Evil Monkeys protect us from mental harm by ignoring the harm in the first place. They firmly believe that what we don’t know can’t hurt us.
For example, when you’re in the honeymoon phase of a relationship, the monkeys will filter out all negative information about your new boyfriend. You will be blind to the fact that he is an untidy slob. By the time the monkeys go away and take their rose-tinted filters with them, it’s too late, you’ve unconsciously turned into his maid.
2. The Twisty Gymnast:
For threats that are too important to ignore (arguments about religion, politics, whether pineapple belongs on pizza etc.) the Twisty Gymnast jumps in. She’ll offer up counterarguments, contort and bend the evidence to suit her, and maybe even throw in a flying leap of logic or two.
As an example, the twisty gymnast in my ex-colleague’s brain had him rationalize that it is not racist to call Mexicans rapists. Why? Because “Mexico is a country, not a race.” The twisty gymnast is usually a creature of contradictions – willfully blind yet willfully pedantic.
3. The “Fake News” Detective:
What do we do when we can neither ignore nor counter-argue evidence? Discount the source or question the credibility of the information, the job of The “Fake News” Detective.
The “Fake News” Detective is usually sleeping when we look at favourable information. The moment we come across evidence we don’t like, it sets off a mental alarm that wakes him up and gets him going. Fueled by the sweet rush of exposing fraud, he demands sources, times, dates, the entire life history of the person making the opposing claim etc.
(For those offended that I’ve used President Trump to symbolize this part of the brain, I’m just giving him credit for inventing the term “fake news” as he once claimed. #fakenewsinception)
Note: The Twisty Gymnast and the “Fake News” Detective can be excellent at derailing conversations. This is why they are consciously employed by trolls and people deliberately looking to argue in bad faith.
Confirmation Bias Online:
Google co-founder Sergey Brin once said he intended for Google to be “the third half” of our brains. As it turns out, this third half is just as flawed as the rest of the brain, so…. mission accomplished?
Google, and social media in general, enable our confirmation bias through their personalization strategies. The internet is a library of information. Tech companies are the overly-helpful-but-actually-creepy librarians choosing for us what they think we want to read.
For example, say you’re interested in starting a ketogenic diet. The more you click on keto-friendly articles, the more your google searches, your news websites, and your social media feeds are going to be a pro-keto information buffet. The anti-keto articles and information will be slowly phased out, until they don’t exist in your online world anymore. You won’t see them unless you go specifically looking for them- and not many people do.
This “unique universe of information” personalized just for us is called the filter bubble. It’s helpful because it shows us exactly what we want. But what we want can be very different from what we really need. In the long term, living in an echo chamber that reinforces everything that we want to believe might not be good for us or society.
Our media filter bubbles and echo chambers is another major reason why the world seems so polarized today. Our thoughts and viewpoints are radicalized when we stop being exposed to opposing information and evidence.
Overcoming Our Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is extremely hard to eliminate completely, even for those studying it. Reducing it requires us to :
- Understand that we are biologically wired to cherry-pick information to reflect whatever it is we want to believe.
- Be open to actively challenging our beliefs and evaluating our instinctive reactions.
- Argue with people with the intent of understanding their point of view, not with the intent of winning the argument.
I know that this is no small order for a lot of people, including me. If it’s any incentive though, research suggests that people who approach life with curiosity and the willingness to be wrong outperform people who want to be right all the time. So we will win, eventually.
You may still have questions on this. Lemme take a stab at seeing if I can guess them:
Q1. Why should I acknowledge my biases when nobody else will?
Ans. Because it means you’re a superior human being compared to the rest of us? Just kidding. Again, it boils down to what you value more – the full and complete truth, or being seen as right.
Look, you don’t need to publicly announce that you’re biased. You don’t need to lose all your debate competitions for not showing enough conviction in your beliefs. But you need to be aware that your mind shows you what you want to believe. None of us can trust ourselves to be fully logical or unbiased.
Q2. Does acknowledging that I may be biased against the other side, imply equivalence between my truth and their lies? Especially with all the actual fake news, “alternative facts”, shoddy science and misused statistics out there?
Ans. On the contrary, when you carefully consider all sides of the argument (instead of just yours), you can call out the garbage more effectively. You can also have a more productive debate if you acknowledge the valid points your opponent has to offer. So don’t dismiss them out of hand, but actually listen and try to understand why they believe what they do.
Of course, use your own discretion in whether you consider an argument about how George Soros is actually a reptile controlling the world from his lair, Denver International Airport. You have to draw the line somewhere.
Q3. Does confirmation bias mean that I can’t really trust anything I think or believe? How do I know any of my thoughts are correct?
Ans. This is venturing into the fields of philosophy and spirituality. It’s way too much for this post. For now, just be conscious of the fact that you are not necessarily right in what you believe. Keep an open mind and listen to all seemingly credible information out there. Make sure you don’t turn into Conspiracy Keanu though:
Dealing with Confirmation Bias in Others
When arguing with someone, you need to make them actually want to listen to you. Otherwise, their “Uncomfortable Truth Destroyers” will just pick apart whatever you tell them.
You may not be able to change their minds, especially for very deeply held beliefs. That’s not the immediate goal though. Work in an incremental approach where you start by priming them to be more receptive to your ideas, now and in the future. The following strategies may be useful:
1.Sneak in a compliment:
Acknowledge/compliment them on an achievement in something completely unrelated to the topic you’re discussing. Making them feel good about other aspects of their identity can reduce how much they associate their personal identity with this particular topic. It may also make them less defensive overall.
2. Agree on something:
Find a point of agreement on some aspect of the issue, however minor. You might find this hard to do if you find their views disgusting, but do your best to truly understand where they are coming from. When you agree with them on something, you seem less threatening. It also makes you seem well-versed on all sides of the issue.
In turn, it could make them agree with you on something as well. The human need to reciprocate is powerful. Also, they probably don’t want to appear to have a shallow understanding of the issue in comparison to you.
3. Tell them (kinda) what they want to hear:
Understand what drives your opponent, and (re)frame your argument to fit their worldview. We tend to assume that other people want what we do, but people have different moral foundations:
- People who are socially conservative primarily value respect for authority, loyalty to the group, and “moral purity”. Liberals value justice, fairness, and protection of vulnerable groups.
- People who join fringe movements and hate groups feel a deep sense of isolation, and lack a sense of power and identity.
- Climate change deniers want short-term economic profits and oppose regulation.
- Anti-vaxxers value individual liberty, mistrust conventional authority and fear contamination.
Recognizing what motivates someone and addressing those needs might seem hard, but it is actually a Marketing 101 tactic. This is why beauty companies use feminism to sell their products to women who want to feel empowered, Nike uses social justice issues to sell shoes to politically-minded millennials, and a new generation of anti-abortion activists is explaining why being “pro-life” is being “pro-woman”.
Note: I’ve written a post on understanding motivation in yourself and others. You may find it useful if you’re interested in this topic.
Know When to Get Out
While confirmation bias may let us make judgments quickly, it causes us to be willfully blind and furthers divisions amongst us. It is extremely hard to avoid. Even in writing this article, I’ve had to confront my own confirmation bias in only researching supportive evidence for the points I wanted to make.
Still, we must make some headway in getting past this age of extreme polarization. It starts with first recognizing everybody’s tendency to only readily accept advantageous facts. But we also need to accept that some people may be too far gone to bother arguing with. So really, ignore that climate change denying, flat-earthing, Illuminati believing holocaust denier after all.