What is Confirmation Bias? Widen Your Perspective By Challenging Your Existing Beliefs
The Social Dilemma is a must-watch documentary. Featuring the likes of Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist for Google, and
The Social Dilemma is a must-watch documentary. Featuring the likes of Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist for Google, and a host of whistleblowers from Silicon Valley, the Netflix feature dives deep into social media manipulation. It shows the worrying trend of how misinformation and computer algorithms create echo chambers — online environments where people are only exposed to beliefs and information similar to their own viewpoint.
This is a relevant place to begin an exploration of confirmation bias, a form of cognitive bias whereby people tend to research or pay attention to information that tends to confirm existing beliefs. It’s been identified as the most intrusive and damaging type of mental shortcut people make to simplify complexity.
Confirmation biases force us into the practice of ignoring evidence in order to find affirmation, or to qualify pre-existing ideas and personal beliefs. In the current social climate, it’s becoming increasingly common.
A form of delusion?
Confirmation bias is on some level a form of delusion. It’s a way of reshaping reality to fit an unconscious belief or desire, often by discounting contradictory evidence. Our brains are bombarded with huge amounts of data, day in, day out. Making snap judgements about the world, other people, and the way things are is a mental shortcut. But it’s also a step away from truth, both about ourselves, and the wider world.
On a journey of self-discovery, it’s vital to learn to identify and overcome confirmation bias and tamp down the importance of previously existing beliefs. Many of us experience a biased interpretation of events linked to our vision of ourselves, and can lead to selecting only information that confirms low self-esteem or a lack of faith in our own ability.
From this perspective, overcoming cognitive bias not only helps us broaden our perspective, but to expand our potential. This article will show you how.
How does confirmation bias work?
There are a huge number of cognitive biases that have been identified by psychology. It’s comfortable to assume we see reality as it is. In truth, we’re limited by our senses.
There are worlds within worlds operating around us, without us being able to see or hear them directly. For example, we perceive only 0.0035 percent of the visible spectrum of light. Other species, such as butterflies, perceive ultraviolet light and have more expansive visual fields.
We’re exposed to 11 million bits of information from the outside world. Every second. Whilst the brain can only process 4 bits per second. Clearly, to avoid being overwhelmed by data, our brains have to make shortcuts. These mental shortcuts are known as heuristics, a type of bias that makes quick decisions by reducing the amount of information that needs processing. In other words, by ignoring evidence, confirmation bias (mental shortcuts) were designed to help us. But left unchecked, it can be harmful.
Confirmation bias, then, is a type of heuristic that wants to remain rigid and fixed. It’s easier to assume our opinions and judgments are right and true. And when it comes to beliefs, about ourselves and the world, without consciously enquiring or challenging, we often find ourselves caught in our own echo chambers of thoughts and experiences.
When it comes to filtering sensory data from the outside world, heuristics make evolutionary sense. By why would confirmation bias have any function at all, considering it keeps people stuck in false beliefs or mistruth? Cognitive psychologists and authors of Enigma of Reason, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, argue there is an evolutionary advantage, socially, to being able to convince others your viewpoint is true.
As the title of their book suggests, they explore a fundamental flaw with the process of reason. Rather than confirmation bias, they opt for the term “myside bias,” which explains how, even through a process of reason, people tend to present explanations that fit pre-existing beliefs, even if this same evidence wouldn’t lead an objective observer to come to the same conclusion. The phenomenon is one of the most widely documented in cognitive psychology. They write:
“Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias.”
Because we have access to so much data, people can find reasons or justifications for their own viewpoint and choose to ignore contradictory information. Confirmation bias, biased search, and the way the way certain algorithms work has only compounded the problem.
In the words of ancient Greek philosopher Thucydides: “For 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.”
Why do we ignore evidence to confirm existing beliefs?
It helps here to take a step back and consider what a belief is. A belief is a view about reality that we see as true, to varying degrees of conviction. Beliefs are mechanisms to seek information and truthful interpretations, of hypothesis testing if you will, making sense of the world around us, and our place in it.
A 2015 study by Michael H. Connors and Peter W. Halligan categorized four functions of belief:
- Providing a consistent and coherent view of a person’s world
- Providing a framework for interpreting the world and processing information
- Calibrating other cognitive functions, such as language, memory, and attention
- Offering security and community in social situations
The authors note that the majority of beliefs remain unconscious or outside of immediate awareness. Nobel Laureate and leading expert of cognitive psychology Daniel Kahneman agrees: “For some of our most important beliefs, we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous—and it is also essential.”
Put all the pieces together, and you’ll see that there is a lot at stake when it comes to our beliefs. Many people hold beliefs that are unconscious and unchallenged, inherited from parents, peers, teachers, or society. Because beliefs are so integral to a sense of understanding the world, challenging them can be painful and even threatening to a person’s fundamental sense of self.
Factor in shared beliefs that hold group dynamics together, and it makes sense as to why people tend to ignore evidence. With confirmation bias, information that conflicts a pre-existing belief is minimized, whilst information supporting a belief is amplified. This links to another mental distortion, cognitive dissonance.
This phenomenon was identified by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. Festinger noticed that people experienced a lot of discomfort when holding two seemingly contradicting beliefs, behaviors or attitudes — such as a smoker who knows smoking is unhealthy.
To resolve the inner conflict, people tended to enact dissonance reduction in four ways:
- Changing the behavior or cognition (As in: “I’ll stop smoking.”)
- Justifying the behavior or cognition by changing cognition (“I only smoke a few cigarettes per day, it’s not so bad.”)
- Justifying the behavior by adding new behaviors and cognitions (“I’ll start running to improve my health in other ways.”)
- Ignoring or denying information that conflicts with belief (“Smoking isn’t so bad, really.”)
The last step of ignoring initial evidence or denying information is confirmation bias. Perhaps more than any other theory, Festinger’s cognitive dissonance shows why people tend to interpret evidence that conflicts with their deeply-entrenched beliefs by denying it,and how it causes psychological stress to hold inconsistent beliefs about his or her behavior or thoughts. And people go to great lengths to reduce that tension.
The negative impact of confirmation bias
A huge part of personal development is to overcome limitations, delusions, and biased interpretations. A closed mind, and living in an echo chamber that only serves to affirm pre-existing beliefs, is one way of remaining stuck.
Equally, confirmation bias has a profound impact on decision-making. If someone is only open to receiving information that confirms what they believe, it makes their choices questionable, and far from optimal.
On a wider scale, confirmation bias can impact groups, too. This process is often referred to as groupthink. Consider company culture at businesses that impact thousands of employees. Or tech companies that influence millions who use their platform, like those featured in The Social Dilemma.
The investigation into whether Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction is one of the most infamous examples of confirmation bias. Convinced this was the case, investigators overlooked opposing evidence, leading to full-scale war. The results were so detrimental that the US Government launched the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) in 2006, to combat cognitive distortions.
Confirmation bias’ role in disconfirming evidence also reaffirms stereotypes too, in a way that has a damaging impact. For example, police brutality is linked to confirmation bias, with black young males 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police compared to white counterparts. “Ninety-nine percent of black people don’t commit crimes,” Harvard sociologist Charles Ogletree notes, “yet we see the images of back people day in, day out, and the impression is that they’re all committing crimes.”
The disintegration of old news institutions and the rise of multiple sources of information through the internet has led to what some call the post-truth era, and causing a great difficulty for those that need to interpret information correctly.
Confirmation bias has been linked with political partisanship, the rise of fake news, and the belief in conspiracy theories. With politicians largely using overly emotive language to influence, rather than reasoned policy, you could just as easily argue we’re living in the era of confirmation bias. Knowing how to overcome confirmation bias has never been more important.
7 tips to overcome confirmation bias
Unlike with the movie Fight Club, the first rule in overcoming confirmation bias is to talk about confirmation bias. At least start by being open and honest with yourself
As the bias blind spot illustrates, most people tend to think they don’t have an inherent bias. A great starting point, then, is to always assume that you might not be right, and to consciously explore information that opposes whatever beliefs you hold. Below are seven tips on overcoming confirmation bias:
- Make your beliefs conscious by increasing self-awareness
Most beliefs are largely inherited and unconscious. A key step in overcoming confirmation bias is to begin by becoming aware of the beliefs that you hold, rather than letting them bubble away below the surface. Take time for self-reflection and see if you can spot any patterns in your behaviors, attitudes, and decision-making.
Beliefs are often the root motivation behind what we feel and what we do. For example, someone with anxiety might believe the world is a frightening or threatening place. If this is social anxiety, they may believe they aren’t safe around other people. Beliefs tend to surface as statements of “truth”, such as “I’m always messing up” or “being kind gets you nowhere.”
Once you have clarity around certain themes or belief systems, then you know what you’re working with, which gives you a headstart if you’re about to embark on the route of confirmation bias.
- Ask yourself: is your belief is really true, 100 percent of the time
Beliefs are shortcuts. They overgeneralize and reduce life’s rich and largely uncertain variety into simple, digestible shortcuts. Part of reducing the intensity or hold of certain beliefs is to challenge them.
Consider whether your belief is 100 percent true, all of the time. You’ll find no belief is! For example, you might have a belief that “I’m clumsy because I drop things.” But would it not be fair to say, every single time you don’t drop something, you’re not clumsy?
The more you consistently challenge beliefs, the more conformable you’ll be when faced with cognitive dissonance, or information that conflicts with your belief. I’m sure we’re all guilty of falling into the trap of stereotyping someone, and then being surprised when they act a certain way.
What if we all had a mindset of allowing ourselves to be surprised? Of becoming curious about any information that conflicts with our beliefs, instead of ignoring any confirming evidence to the contrary?
- Allow your beliefs to be featherlike
The more rigid and fixed a belief, the more susceptible you are to confirmation bias. If you feel desperate to be seen as right, or if a belief is attached to a sense of self-worth, identity, or righteousness, then you’re more likely to do all you can to defend it. I remind myself to hold any belief lightly — not to make an identity out of it, to understand they’re transitory, the best guess I’ve made in that given moment, and always likely to change.
This is where mindfulness and meditation help. The more distance you have from your thoughts, the more objective you can become. I used to be someone that would love to be right. I’d like to argue my point. If I felt unseen or like I had to prove a point, I’d argue my case, usually getting flustered.
But what if you know that no prior beliefs or opinions have any relative impact on your worth and value as a human being? What if you had nothing to prove? What if you could feel totally at ease with people disagreeing with you? What if you could be open and inquisitive when faced with different viewpoints?
- Know that changing beliefs is a sign of wisdom
Studies have shown that people who refuse to accept their beliefs could be wrong due to self-esteem and intelligence. When beliefs run deep and link to a person’s identity, changing those beliefs is painful, because in a way, an objective analysis in a way of denying your own identity.
Equally, if someone might view a false belief as somehow being wrong, and an indication of intelligence. Talking from my personal experience, it takes a lot of humility to own up and accept when you’ve been incorrect about something.
However, as in-depth research from psychological literature illustrates, everyone has biases. And rather than viewing changing beliefs as a flaw or shortcoming, what if you could view it as a sign of wisdom and open-mindedness? Of course, it helps to not hold any beliefs too tightly in the first place. But viewing a change of belief as an opportunity to learn and grow makes you much less at risk of confirmation bias.
- Seek opposing perspectives and evidence
Being receptive to information that contradicts your beliefs is one thing. But to really guard against the way confirmation bias works, set the intention to actively seek our opposing views.
One way is to keep in mind the assumption you might be wrong and to deliberately seek out opposing evidence. It’s not easy, especially with so much information available at our fingertips on the web, but it’s the only way to reach a balanced view.
Using self-awareness, challenge yourself to seek out conversations with people who think differently than you do. And, when feeling the impulse to be heard and get your point of view across, instead shift your mindset.
Seek to understand why the person opposite you has come to their conclusion, and see if you can dig deeper to find the underlying motivations. You’ll be surprised how often you find common ground and a less biased manner of interacting with those with whom you disagree.
- Learn to tolerate discomfort and inner conflict
Confirmation bias is a path of least resistance. But if you’re reading this article, and you’ve made it this far, then you’re someone dedicated to putting in the work to grow. In my experience, one of the most profound aspects of growth is to become comfortable with discomfort.
That doesn’t mean neglecting to make a change when it’s a possibility. It means tolerating inner conflict and avoiding the temptation to remain close-minded when faced with cognitive dissonance.
As Carl Jung once wrote: “There is no energy unless there is a tension of opposites; hence it is necessary to discover the opposite to the attitude of the conscious mind.” For Jung, the reconciliation of opposites was an alchemical process that led to the fullest expression and return to wholeness.
What if you saw tension as an opportunity to learn, grow and expand, rather than falling into the traps of justification or a biased assimilation into groupthink?
- Accept life is full of nuance and multiple truths
It’s hard not to feel slightly disheartened at the state of the world. Attention spans are shrinking due to excessive social media and instant gratification. Reasonable, balanced dialogue is replaced with emotive, inflammatory speech from “leaders.” And polarisation and black-or-white thinking rule supreme, with people being boxed into one side or the other.
Perhaps the most pertinent antidote to confirmation bias is accepting that life, just like human understanding, is nuanced. Reality is full of paradoxical truths. As tempting as it is to stereotype, judge, overgeneralize, or remain stuck in echo chambers, the reality is to continue to grow, you have to constantly step outside your comfort zone and seek wider and wider perspectives.
This can feel like a prison, but in truth, it’s liberating. What happens when we realize even the beliefs about ourselves are half-truths, statements made off the back of selective data? How would we view others differently if we were completely open to them, rather than jumping to quick conclusions?
Are you willing to put in the extra work, to challenge your pre-existing ideas, to allow life to surprise you? Are you committed to acting with integrity and having the humility to be proven wrong?
The world needs less confirmation bias and more curiosity. To be the change the world needs, the first step is to be open to changing your own beliefs, changing your view of the world.