Why do you believe the things that you believe? We like to think that our beliefs are our own, formed from our unique, individual experiences, informed by our own logic, devoid of outside bias. But "confirmation bias" is one factor that quietly pushes us to one side of the fence or the other. In short, people agree with things they already agree with.
Our beliefs are very much shaped by our environment, the people we grow up with, and what we’re taught when we’re young. But there’s another way our beliefs take root, and it has a lot less to do with our individual experiences and principles and more to do with cognitive functioning.
It’s called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our tendency to find, favor, and remember information that already confirms our existing beliefs. In turn, it causes us to pay considerably less attention to that information that does not support what we already think that we know. The fact that Facebook feeds look so different to a conservative vs. a liberal is one proof.
Image credit: WSJ
Whether we decide to challenge our confirmation bias is up to each one of us and our commitment (or not) to living an informed life. But even then, we can’t fully overwrite the way our brains makes sense of the world around us.
There are a number of cognitive biases that affect how we see and understand the world, confirmation bias being just one of them. A cognitive bias is any sort of interpretive error in thinking that goes on to affect our decisions and judgments.
Our brains are complex, and they are also imperfect. Cognitive biases are often the consequences of attempting to simplify information processing, and make decisions quickly. They occur subconsciously; not usually as a direct effort to support our own beliefs and memories but as simply human responses to the large and confusing world we live in, chaotic as it is with so many differing opinions existing at the same time.
Heuristics are a bit like algorithms in your head
Mental shortcuts, including cognitive biases, are known as heuristics. Heuristics are a bit like algorithms in your head. Input comes in and your brain’s built-in simplification process sorts it for you automatically based on what it already knows. This serves an important mental function, allowing you to operate and make decisions without having to always stop and sort out all of the facts.
Think of the last time you went to see a new doctor. You probably didn’t diligently study their credentials or case history, but you know that they graduated from medical school and that they’ve gotten their medical degree, so you assume that this person can help you with your health problems. Perhaps you didn't see any Healthgrades reviews that were problematic. It’s significantly easier to function in the latter way, without having to find evidence to support every claim you believe.
Heuristics aren’t the only function behind cognitive biases. Things like memories, societal pressures, emotions, values, personal goals, and pure, physiological brain limitations all play in and sustain the mental short-cuts that allow us to function with more dexterity.
Aside from confirmation bias, other cognitive biases include the halo effect (wherein our overall interpretation of a person colors how we see their actions), attentional bias (our ability to pay attention to some things and ignore others at the same time), and optimism bias (the belief each individual has that they are less likely to suffer from misfortune than others, and more likely to achieve success).
Confirmation Bias in Politics
The role of confirmation bias in political discourse is a large one. It doesn’t just impact what information we choose to gather, it influences how we interpret that information, and what our brain remembers, subsequently affecting future information we hear and perpetuating a cycle of beliefs that bolster what we already think.
Google personalization feeds confirmation bias
Consider the debate over climate change. The fact that peer-reviewed scientific evidence is failing to sway so many people is clear evidence of the confirmation bias in practice. A person will always be able to find support (legitimate or not) for their beliefs. It’s why some continue to insist the moon landing or the Holocaust never happened, and why people continue to call climate change a hoax in the face of what looks to many like inconvertible truth of the very opposite.
Confirmation bias makes people seek out information that supports their beliefs, allowing them to uphold particular attitudes that make sense in their worldview. It affects the news channels they choose to watch, the newspapers and blogs they choose to read, and even their entire social media experience.
Take a trip down the Facebook newsfeed or Twitter timeline of someone who holds opposite political beliefs as your own and you’ll feel like you’ve entered an alternate reality. This Wall Street Journal graphic mentioned above demonstrates the social media confirmation bias that arises when a user has political leanings on either side of the spectrum. Google feeds this too because they personalize our search results.
Confirmation bias is often emotionally charged
One of the reasons that confirmation bias can be seen so clearly in politics is that it’s inherently emotionally charged. It’s based on deeply held beliefs and memories. It doesn’t matter if members of both parties are exposed to the exact same information, what matters is what they believed before that point. Unfortunately, this makes changing someone’s political views—even when they’re extremely antithetical to the country’s foundational strongholds—a very tricky task.
Confirmation Bias in Business
Even the most savvy business leaders fall victim to confirmation bias in their decision making. For proof of this, look no further than Google Glass, discontinued in 2015 less than two years after its release. The device, similar in structure and weight to a pair of eyeglasses, was touted as revolutionary, a seamless integration between real life, recorded life, and social media.
It had all the features Google might expect their customers to want, including real-time facial recognition and social integration, and the ability to take a picture or video with a simple voice command. What Google failed to see was that their users were more concerned with privacy and safety than innovative features, or that the cool factor of having instant, hands-free access to your social media and Internet applications would be far outweighed by the un-cool factor of wearing the Google Glass headset.
Confirmation bias plays into business in a number of ways, often preventing those inside an industry from accurately predicting the behaviors of those outside the industry. Many business decisions are risks, after all; like throwing out a fishing line and seeing what happens. Google executives thought Google Glass would be successful because it’s the kind of technological integration they themselves would want. In doing so, they failed to accurately anticipate the wants of their average consumer.
The Benefits of Self-Deception
We may disparage confirmation bias for the limitations it puts on our interpretive abilities, but there are some scenarios where we stand to benefit from it. For example, our health. Confirmation bias can explain everything from the placebo effect to the power of positive thinking to lessen the symptoms of illness.
Imagine you’re given a diagnosis and told that you have a 50% chance of getting better. If you believe you will heal, and there’s supporting information that you will, your optimism can positively impact your recovery. Even if you don’t recover, the experience of believing you will can cause less overall suffering.
“Fake it ‘til you make it” is another example of the positive use of confirmation bias. You’ve likely seen instances where it has worked and instances where it hasn’t, but choosing to believe that it is an efficient way of gaining career confidence and achieving success will likely inspire you to stay positive and work harder, which in turn can lead to the very success you hoped for.
How Confirmation Bias is Harmful
One of the problems with confirmation bias is that if you are wrong, you’re either unlikely to ever know it, or, if you do make the discovery, it will be because something so major happened that you can no longer deny what is in front of you.
We saw this in 2017 as Republican lawmakers attempted to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. In the same week that the efforts to repeal began, people started speaking out against losing their healthcare—many of them the same people who virulently opposed Obamacare.
They didn’t know the ACA and Obamacare were the same
The problem? They didn’t know the ACA and Obamacare were the same thing. Conservative news agencies and politicians had attached such derision to the term “Obamacare” that many people were opposing it while also benefiting from it, a fallacy that didn’t come to light for them until they faced the very real possibility of losing their health insurance.
We use confirmation bias to affirm our beliefs, which helps us make sense of our complex world. But sometimes, confirmation bias allows us to become trapped in a horrible destiny of our own making. People who join cults or choose not to vaccinate their children for fear of autism, for example, are putting themselves and their loved ones at risk to support beliefs that have been unequivocally proven to be detrimental. And yet, they will persist in these beliefs in the face of proof to the contrary, and their confirmation bias will allow them to do so.
How to Avoid Confirmation Bias
You have no power to affect someone else’s confirmation bias, but you can certainly attempt to challenge your own. Just don’t expect it to be easy.
Falsification is the idea that you can challenge a belief by looking for evidence that it is wrong. It goes to follow then that a climate change denier could just type “proof of climate change” into a search engine and experience an immediate change of belief after seeing the pages upon pages of scientific proof. Of course, it’s not nearly that simple. People are often able to persist in incorrect beliefs in spite of proof they are wrong, not because they can’t interpret what they’re seeing but because their brain is interpreting it differently.
...You are not going to change an environmentalists ideas either
Unfortunately, you’re rarely going to convince a climate change denier that it’s a real thing unless they are open to changing their hypothesis. Conversely, you are not going to change an environmentalists ideas either. That’s because challenging one’s confirmation bias has to be something that someone actively chooses to do. It means accepting that you could be wrong, opening your mind to alternatives, and being open to accepting surprises and allowing hypotheses to change when information is different than what you expected.
This does require complacency, though—you have to actively decide that you want to challenge your beliefs. And for many of us, we’re comfortable remaining in the bubble of our worldview. Why? Because it's comfortable and our friends believe the same way we do.
What We Can Learn From Confirmation Bias
Simply being aware of the existence of our individual confirmation biases—even if we can’t change them—is a step toward a more open-minded existence. Allowing yourself to accept the idea that what you believe might not be right, even if you believe it down to your core, can make you a better person.
Encouraging debate and discourse, gathering information from as many sources as possible, and accepting at face value that other people’s ideas can be as valid as your own makes for better, more effective leadership.
It may seem counterintuitive to live a life where we’re constantly questioning our own beliefs, but in fact, it is a way to grow. You’re told from a young age that the world doesn’t revolve around you, but for each one of us, viewing the world as we do through our own sets of eyes and our own experiences, the world we create does in fact revolve around us.
It revolves around our perceptions and memories, around what we choose to believe and what we choose to never believe. Having as many tools at our disposable as possible—including the ability to question our own confirmation bias—is just one more asset toward a more honest life.