Cognitive Bias #1: Confirmation Bias

It is time for a new series on the blog – a deep dive into the many different cognitive biases that exist in our world. Much like my train stories segment, I expect this one to finish in about 64 years.

I’ve always had an interest in human psychology. One of the best classes I took in college was called Organisational Behaviour (I took it while abroad in Sydney, hence the spelling). OB is the study of the way people interact, particularly in groups. And by understanding how people interact, and how we make decisions, we can become more conscious of others and more aware of our own behaviors.

And part of becoming more aware of our behavior is understanding cognitive biases. These biases are systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. They prevent us from acting objectively. They are also present in all of us. It is a deeply flawed part of the human machine.

Today I would like to talk about one of the most well-known cognitive biases: confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. It’s a fancy way of describing our human inclination to see what we want to see.

It is one of the *many* reasons why it’s so hard to have an open and intelligent conversation about politics, or the economy, or sports, or climate change, or basically everything ever. We surround ourselves in an echo chamber of agreement, through our friends and the news we watch and the social media accounts we follow. Everything is curated to agree with our own beliefs.

The problem with confirmation bias is that when we come across disconfirming evidence, we are more likely to dismiss it than critically evaluate it. The other day I was having an argument with someone about politics, which I really hate to do, but the person said something that was so blatantly wrong that I had to chime in. So, I did. I responded with a litany of data, all meticulously sourced, much of it recited by memory, because I am a robot. Didn’t matter. I got nowhere. Because when we want to believe something, we tend to only seek evidence that confirms our desired belief. We ignore the rest, even when presented with very honest facts.

The internet is a cesspool of confirmation bias. If I have a preconceived hypothesis about something – say, that Bigfoot is real – all I have to do is search for ‘Bigfoot sightings’ and I’m greeted with this:

BIGFOOT

Five hours of reading later, and I’ll be out in the street shouting HEY EVERYBODY, BIGFOOT IS REAL, OH GOD IT’S COMING FOR US and no one can convince me otherwise (to be clear, I don’t actually think Bigfoot is real).

I like to think of myself as a rational, critically thinking individual, but I am not above confirmation bias. No one is. It’s sort of hard-wired into us, part of an instinctual group mentality that has been passed down by our big dumb Australopithecus ancestors.

There are plenty of examples from my own life where my decision making, or general thoughts, were influenced by confirmation bias instead logic or reason or the truth. For example, when I was growing up, I was certain that the Yankees had the best fans in baseball, and they were revered across the country, and everyone who played on the Yankees was perfect, because that’s what I saw on TV. Every time I turned on the YES Network, I was inundated with messages about THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES and TRADITION and THE POWER OF THE PINSTRIPES.

When I moved to Boston, I quickly realized that the Yankees, and their brand, are actually hated just about everywhere else in the country. It was a sobering discovery.

So, how do we get past confirmation bias? Well, according to the internet, just being aware that the bias exists is not enough (just like I know that too much ice cream is bad for me, but I DON’T CARE GIMME ICE CREAM, I WANT THE ICE CREAM). Here is what you should do:

  1. Open your mind. Learn how to think of a few far-our alternatives and keep an eye out for evidence that supports any one of them.
  2. But don’t abandon your first guesses too readily! Sometimes your initial expectation may be neither 100% right, nor 100% wrong.
  3. Embrace surprises when they happen to you. When you feel that something didn’t go exactly as you expected, consider that you need to refine some hypotheses about how things are working.

Confirmation bias is just one of the many cognitive biases that exist in our stupid brains, and I look forward to covering the rest of them over the next several decades.

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