One subject on which I want to spend a lot of time and words on this site is why we make bad decisions and how we can make better ones. This means taking a look at our cognitive biases, which are basically holes in our ability to think logically and rationally.
That may sound boring, but by noticing and correcting these holes we can make better decisions, be more convincing, and generally make ourselves smarter. Does that sound less boring?
What Is Confirmation Bias?
The first hole in our reasoning that I want to look at is confirmation bias. This is when our brains subconsciously interpret evidence so that it will support the position that we already hold.
The easiest examples of confirmation bias tend to be political (and the reason that you can’t convince your facebook friends to switch sides in a debate – I’ve been there, too). If you are against increased gun control measures in the US, you see the fact that Chicago has a high rate of violent crime and strict gun laws as proof that gun control doesn’t work. If you are for increased gun control, you see the lack of mass shootings in Australia since it implemented gun control and buybacks as proof that gun control does work.
Both sides have access to the exact same information, but have weighted it very differently to come out to very different conclusions.
There are, of course, times when one side is right and the other side is wrong. The point stands, though, that once we take a position we tend to use whatever new information comes in to dig in rather than to inform ourselves and challenge our preconceptions.
Another form of confirmation bias is when we avoid information that challenges our preconceived notions. This is where conservatives watch Fox News or liberals watch MSNBC.
And it doesn’t have to be so blatant and stereotypical. A 2009 study found that people will spend 36% more time reading an article that supports their prior opinion than an article that contradicts it. I will admit that I have caught myself doing doing this at times.
Why Is It a Problem?
The short and easy answer as to why confirmation bias poses a problem is that if we allow our confirmation bias to inform our decisions, then we are not making the best possible decisions. We are ignoring pertinent information and locking ourselves into a position before knowing all of the facts.
But this has been a problem for a long time and mankind has done pretty well for itself. In 1897, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”
However, the problem is growing with the Internet. I’m pretty sure that any position you could possibly take on any issue has been argued somewhere on the Internet (although I haven’t done exhaustive enough research to say for a fact). With the power of Google and the proliferation of blogs and youtube channels, you can find evidence supporting whatever views you hold on any issue.
Some of these are entertaining. Want evidence that the world is flat? Here’s a two-hour long documentary “proving” it. Interested in some articles explaining how we “know” that the moon landing was faked? You can find those, as well.
Some are more upsetting. There are articles and videos of people convinced that the September 11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the 2015 Paris attacks were all orchestrated by the government. (I won’t link to those, but if you have the stomach for it you can find them on your own.)
Most importantly, sometimes these articles and videos can be outright dangerous. Take the anti-vaxxer movement as an example.
The idea that vaccines cause autism has been thoroughly debunked by doctors and scientists. However, there are a great many articles and videos online that paint the evidence in a very different light. People who are predisposed to this type of viewpoint are reading and watching those videos, weighing that evidence heavier than the evidence presented by the doctors and scientists on the other side, and choosing not to vaccinate their children. This has led to the resurgence of diseases that had been nearly eradicated.
How Can We Fix It?
So what can we do to combat confirmation bias?
On a societal level, I honestly don’t know. How to combat confirmation bias in a large-scale manner is a conversation that I have had multiple times with a few different friends (yes, I am a nerd). We have yet to come up with any sort of reasonable approach to addressing the problem at that level. (If you have any ideas, I would love to engage in the comments. I also intend for this to be a subject of future posts.)
I won’t send you home empty handed, though.
While we cannot at this point get everyone else to avoid confirmation bias, we can start with addressing the issue in our own decision making.
First, be aware of confirmation bias. This sounds obvious, but can be difficult to put into practice. Work on developing an automatic check-in with yourself when making decision or debating issues to make sure that you are actually keeping yourself open to new evidence.
Next, actively challenge your preconceptions. Look for evidence that contradicts your position and think about it. Seek out sources that disagree with you and listen to them with honest curiosity.
One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people is “Seek first to understand. Then to be understood.” This habit would serve you well in avoiding confirmation bias. Before trying to convince others to join you on your side of the issue, make an effort to understand why they believe what they believe.
This doesn’t mean that you should hold no beliefs and should sway whichever way the wind happens to be blowing, but it does mean that you should attempt to avoid the assumption that you are always right. Try to interpret all new evidence with as open a mind as possible.
Any other tips for overcoming confirmation bias? Share them with us below!