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Confirmation bias: Everything you need to know!

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Isn't it baffling that flat-earthers still exist? In an age where satellite images and space exploration have proven the Earth to be round, there remains a group very convinced of its flatness. A flat-earther confidently argued “Look at the vast ocean. Do you see a curve? No, right?”, Wait what? This is a classic example of a case where one selectively accepts information, turning a blind eye to overwhelming evidence (in this case, common sense) that challenges them. This is called confirmation bias.

All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. - ‘The Boxer’ by Simon & Garfunkel

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is a psychological tendency where we tend to cherry-pick information that aligns with our existing beliefs. This affects how we gather, interpret, and recall information, leading us to pay more attention to what confirms our beliefs and ignore what contradicts them.

Confirmation bias can cause us to have a very narrow view of the world, where we only see what we already believe to be right. This is very evident when you talk to someone who strongly supports a particular political ideology. For example, if your friend strongly believes in right-wing ideas and you support left-wing ideas, both of you will only notice things that support your own views and will provide evidence which only supports your ideology. Both of you are looking at political news only through the lens of your own confirmation biases.

Two friends looking only at news which supports their pre-existing political ideology.
Two friends looking only at news which supports their pre-existing political ideology. Source: Signe Wilkinson

The science behind it

Confirmation bias is rooted in how our brains work. Our brains knowingly or unknowingly just prefer to see the world through the confirmation bias lens, here is why:

We have an innate Desire for Consistency. We are creatures of habit, always craving consistency. And, confirmation bias helps maintain this mental equilibrium. It’s similar to how we develop set systems, routines and structures to follow so we don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time we have to do a task. However, we know that sometimes these systems and routines are broken or problematic and they need to be questioned to be improved.

We are constantly in a state of an Information Overload. Many evolutionary scientists have said that our brains were not meant to handle the modern world of the information age. So, selectively choosing what aligns with our beliefs becomes a survival tactic. Our brain has to make a lot of decisions and parse through way too much information on a daily basis. Which is why it has come up with heuristics which help us make decisions faster and with less effort. Confirmation bias is one such heuristic which lets us remain in autopilot and not have to expend too much energy while processing information.

The confirmation bias is so fundamental to your development and your reality that you might not even realize it is happening. We look for evidence that supports our beliefs and opinions about the world but excludes those that run contrary to our own… In an attempt to simplify the world and make it conform to our expectations, we have been blessed with the gift of cognitive biases. - Sia Mohajer (The Little Book of Stupidity)

Sometimes we are very emotionally attached to our beliefs. Ever felt so strongly about something that it's almost like a part of you? That emotional attachment fuels confirmation bias, making it harder to see things objectively. We closely guard these deeply held views and disproving them feels quite uncomfortable.

Imagine you have a friend who is convinced that smoking is not as injurious to health as everyone makes it out to be. She might feel very strongly about this and keep finding a lot of information to support her stance, despite the plethora of opposing evidence. Smoking and defending her habit has become a part of her and it would be very difficult for her to actually listen to any contradictory arguments.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” - Robertson Davies

How does this impact us?

Confirmation bias affects our consumption and processing of information at all levels. It affects what  we pay attention to, how we perceive any information and what information we recall from our memories. We often only remember evidence that support our beliefs. This is called ‘selective recall’.

This proves to be a huge obstacle to our growth and learning.  As individuals become closed off to new information and perspectives their scope and ability to learn reduces. Growth requires an open mind and willingness to explore but confirmation bias confines us to only what we already know.

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 doubt, what is laid before him. - Leo Tolstoy

It also leads to Impaired Decision-Making. This bias makes us take poor decisions because while looking for only evidence we like we will miss out on critical facts we actually need. Imagine trying to drive with foggy glasses. Confirmation bias is that fog – impairing your ability to make clear-headed decisions by conveniently overlooking crucial info.

Here are some interesting examples of how confirmation bias can play out:

  • Researchers are biased too! Researchers, despite their best efforts to be objective, can fall victim to confirmation bias by favouring data that supports their hypotheses. This can skew research outcomes and impede scientific progress. This also plays out during the peer-review process of paper publication. Researchers tend to approve of studies which confirm their own views or views which are generally accepted in the academic community. Research in its essence is supposed to be objective and devoid of human bias. So, researchers need to be aware of and actively counter their own biases so that their studies are as close to objective truth as possible.

  • Social Media Echo chambers and Polarisation: On social media we constantly consume information that aligns with things we like, our ideologies, aspirations and anything that conforms with our identity. This creates an echo chamber which only reiterates the perspective we already believe, omitting any other point of view. Confirmation bias can also lead to entrenched positions where each side only acknowledges evidence that supports their view. This can be witnessed on the several “Comment wars” on Facebook, Reddit or Twitter(X). This kind of polarisation hinders constructive debate and the development of balanced opinions. Society is a melting pot of ideas, but confirmation bias stirs the pot in one direction. It fuels division, turning our differences into chasms.

Social media acts as a platform for echo chambers and polarisation of beliefs, and how 'neutrality' is scarce and unincentivised. Source: unknown

  • Investment Decisions: An investor who has purchased stock in a company may ignore signs of financial trouble or market shifts that suggest a decline in value. Instead, they focus on positive forecasts and optimistic analyses, reinforcing their belief that their investment was sound. This can lead to financial losses or missed opportunities for better investments.

  • Jury Decisions: Jurors might form an opinion about a case early in the trial based on their personal beliefs or first impressions. This initial opinion can lead them to give more weight to evidence that supports their view and dismiss evidence to the contrary, potentially affecting the fairness of the trial. Check out this cool research paper on clouded judgement due to pre-trial publicity.

Strategies for Overcoming Confirmation Bias

  1. Encourage Debate and Contrarian Thinking: Fostering an environment where different viewpoints are welcomed and debated can help in challenging prevailing opinions and reducing the effects of confirmation bias.

  2. Diversify Your Information Sources: Actively seeking information from a variety of sources, especially those that offer different perspectives, can provide a more balanced view and counteract the effects of confirmation bias. Check out 1440 News ("Edited to be unbiased as humanly possible") and Ground News (a platform that makes it easy to compare news sources, read between the lines of media bias and break free from algorithms).

  3. Practice Reflective Thinking: Regular introspection about why we hold certain beliefs and how we form them can help in identifying and addressing confirmation bias.

  4. Awareness and Education: Being conscious of the existence of confirmation bias and educating oneself and others about its impacts can be a crucial step in mitigating its effects.

  5. Structured Decision-Making Processes: Implementing formal procedures that require considering all available information can help in making more objective decisions in professional settings.

  6. Be fluid and open to change! The stronger we are about our beliefs the more confirmation bias will affect us. We should not form very rigid belief systems or identities which are “set in stone”. We should try to be open to things which challenge our beliefs and be willing to change them from time to time.

Summing up!

Confirmation bias is a natural part of how we think, but being aware of it and actively working to counteract it can lead to more informed decisions, a more balanced perspective, and greater openness to new ideas. By recognising and understanding this bias, we can take steps to ensure it doesn't unduly influence our beliefs and decisions.

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