What is Confirmation Bias?

What is Confirmation Bias
Drawing by Adrian Serghie

Provided by Natalie from Big Happy Life

Blog: https://bighappylife.blog/

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If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that cognitive biases shape our thinking in ways that make us feel surer of the decisions we’re making and the actions we’re taking.

Last week I wrote about the Halo Effect, which is actually a type of confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that supports pre-existing beliefs or ideas. Many of us believe our political affiliations, brand choices, opinions of our colleagues and all kinds of other things are based on rational, fully thought through and evaluated choices. This is hardly ever the case because confirmation bias makes us ignore or forget information that doesn’t support what we already believe and pay close attention to information that supports our beliefs. In other words, it skews our view of reality in favor of our existing beliefs – so we’re even more convinced.

Confirmation bias is one of the most significant contributors to our ability to debate any topic without changing our minds. Think Trump, gun control, education systems, religion, carbs versus fat, you name it. As there’s enough information available to support almost any argument, we all have enough data to confirm what we believe and (as far as we’re concerned) prove our point. Well, maybe not Trump supporters but everyone else (or is that just my own confirmation bias at play?)

Here’s how it works: Let’s say you believe women are bad drivers. You are far more likely to notice any mistakes made by women. You’re more likely to watch funny clips featuring female drivers and when you’re in doubt about the gender of a driver who has committed some error on the road, you’re more likely to assume the driver is female. Although you may see male drivers make mistakes or commit traffic violations, you’re less likely to pay attention, more likely to excuse it as an anomaly and therefore less likely to remember it. Your view remains intact regardless of how many male drivers you see behaving in a similar way to female drivers who prove your theory.

When it comes to Internet use, confirmation bias is one of the cognitive biases that shapes our choice of websites, blogs and resources. Let’s say for example, you’ve decided to eat more healthily and you want to follow a weekly meal plan. You believe fats are good and carbs are the devil. Your online search would likely take you to sites sharing healthy eating tips and plans with the same view. Your ability to find multiple sources of information, all supporting your view would further confirm to you that you’re correct, making you feel more sure that you’re on the right track.

Social media and current advertising is capitalizing on this bias and potentially narrowing our curiosity further. For example, Facebook tailors your feed, showing you things you’ve demonstrated a preference for. By rooting out things you don’t like, your exposure to information that conflicts with what you believe is minimized and you’re even more likely to enter into biased thinking.

This isn’t “bad” thinking but it causes us to make predictable mistakes. When it comes to confirmation bias, the best medicine is a curious mind. Seeking out information that goes against your beliefs in order to test how robust they are in the face of conflict helps you determine whether you’re erring on the side of logical, balance choices or narrower, single-sided viewpoints.

Have you noticed this bias at play in your own life? What difference did it make to your thinking?


20 thoughts on “What is Confirmation Bias?

  1. Most people also have this kind of view when it comes to politics. Each party who sides a president candidate would only look for information that supports their preferred candidates, even if it’s probably inaccurate. On the other hand, there are also some people who only look for information that looks down and points flaws on the opposing candidates without focusing on their own candidates

    Sometimes I find this kind of view is annoying

    1. Viewpoints are usually one position on the same circle, so it can only ever go round and round. Cognitive biases may be s good way to get that to change but Imdoubt it will happen – too much effort involved 🙂

    2. I guess that’s because people are not “designed” to have in mind contradictory information in the same time because it leads to cognitive dissonance which can create anxiety.

  2. Yeah, I’m pretty sure there is confirmation bias at play in almost every political decision. Have you found good ways to reduce its influence?

  3. I believe that Confirmation Bias is why it is utterly pointless to try to have a logical debate with anyone whose views differ from your own. No matter who is right or who is wrong, nobody is ever going to truly change their mind. 😐

    1. That’s often the case. I find I have the greatest success in changing peoples minds when I first take the time to understand their views and make sense how those views came to be. Though you’re right – people would often rather hold on to their views than challenge them.

  4. This may be sort of off-topic from your point…but I believe I’ve encountered confirmation bias in professional relationships: attorneys, doctors, and it even came through on a few points with my therapist. It was quite frustrating until I realized she was counseling me on a certain point based upon her own life experience (and bias) with her own family members. Just something to be aware of; even paid professionals are prone to being human.

    1. Absolutely! I caught myself doing just that with one of my clients and had to do a bit of a U-turn. It’s very easy to fall into the trap.

    2. Yes, exactly! Humans will continue to be humans so their capacities will be biased because it’s in human nature. This is why a dose of skepticism is useful anytime.

  5. As an evolutionary biologist, I would like to know what would be the advantage of confirmation bias? I agree it exists, but it seems to me counterproductive to continually double-down on potentially (likely) incomplete information and faulty reasoning.

    1. I think that we, as humans, are afraid of the unknown and these things help us predict and assume certain areas of your life because it’s easier compared to finding out all the information so we can prepare a proper opinion. This way, we can “know” things without too much effort. What do you think? Does it make sense?

      1. Actually yes, I was going along a similar vein. Many many psychological foibles are actually the result of ‘rules of thumb’, shortcuts we take to save time and mental energy. With confirmation bias, it might be that the confidence gained to act quickly, or the caution adopted to avoid catastrophe, by thinking we know the truth is more valuable than actually knowing the truth, as long as what we think we know does not stray too far from reality. You know what I mean? Whether the cave holds a hungry bear or magical demons does not matter, as long as we avoid the cave. If women are better or worse drivers than men doesn’t matter, as long as we are vigilant on the roads (provided the chances of meeting women and men drivers are equal, vigilance will pay off, regardless of the accuracy of our false beliefs).

    2. Sorry, I’m a bit late on replying. For me, I think the “pattern recognition software” that is confirmation bias would offer great survival and reproductive benefits and would therefore evolve to become a widespread feature in our thinking. Unfortunately, life has become so much more complicated that the software is placed under much greater pressure and lets us down rather predictably. I agree with Bogdan as well – fear of the unknown is unpleasant enough to us to make certainty (even if it is incorrect) a preferable option even though we recognise the fallibility of such thinking.

  6. You stated — “Social media and current advertising is capitalizing on this bias and potentially narrowing our curiosity further. ”

    My response — I would agree with you in the short term but in the long term, I think it may inoculate us from such thinking as it loses potency.

    Just a thought

      1. As people become more desensitized and information easier to fake people will begin to focus social tools on entertainment and consumerism.

        Information overload will greatly devalue propaganda. People will gravitate even more to news sources like CNN for verified information.

        Not that they are any better but what can you do.

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