Confirmation bias involves paying closer attention to the things that confirm an existing belief in your life and ignoring anything which might go against your current perception. Confirmation bias can cause us to interpret the evidence differently to what’s true in reality, because we favor some insights over others.
One of the most commonly cited forms of bias in behavioral study, confirmation bias has a direct impact on the way we make our decisions. This is often particularly true in the financial world, where confirmation bias can alter how people invest their money or make purchasing decisions.
Let’s define confirmation bias.
What is Confirmation Bias?
Imagine you send an email to a colleague, then a message over chat, and you even send a text. After a while of no response, it’s easy to jump to conclusions that the person is avoiding or ignoring you. While we can all make assumptions somewhat unfairly in our lives, the danger happens when we leave the belief unchecked, and start to act as though what you think is actually true.
Confirmation bias occurs when you allow your desires about what you want to be true influence your view of the world. When you would like something to be true, such as the belief that you’re the best worker in the office, you start pinpointing any evidence that this may be the case (such as positive feedback from your employer) and ignoring everything else.
While there’s nothing wrong with a little wishful thinking at times, problems do arise when you start ignoring facts to make the information fit your narrative of the world. Failure to look at the “bigger picture” and consider all the evidence could mean you end up making dangerous decisions.
Once we form a specific view with confirmation bias, we actively embrace information that confirms our believe, while rejecting and ignoring anything which may cast doubt. This means we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick pieces of data which make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. This means we become prisoners of our own assumptions.
When Does Confirmation Bias Happen?
Confirmation bias is a kind of cognitive bias, or a specific mode of thinking, which involves favoring information which confirms previously existing believes. For instance, you might have grown up with the belief that people with red hair were more creative than anyone else. Whenever you encounter a person with red hair who is also creative, you place greater value on this evidence than anything else.
You might even seek out proof which backs up your belief, like searching online for red-headed artists and creators. Confirmation bias often impacts how we gather and interpret information. For instance, people who support or oppose a specific issue will often not only seek evidence to support their view, but also interpret news stories and discoveries in a way which upholds their belief.
There are a number of reasons why people can fall into problems with confirmation bias. Many anxious individuals experience confirmation bias. For instance, if you have low self-esteem, you’re highly sensitive to anything which might confirm your negative view of yourself. If you tend to worry people get annoyed with you too easily, you might look for signs that anyone might be acting a little differently towards you in your life.
Confirmation bias can also happen in instances where you perceive matters of circumstance or luck as more than they are. For instance, you may convince yourself you’re excellent at playing the slots if you win a couple of times in a row. However, the reality is that the odds are only temporarily in your favor.
Confirmation bias and wishful thinking is a kind of self-deception. We often deceive ourselves because it makes us feel happier or gives us an excuse to do something we shouldn’t. For instance, you might tell yourself that eating an entire pizza isn’t “that fattening”, if you know this is what you want to do.
Exploring Confirmation Bias in Action
Although confirmation bias might seem like an odd thing at first glance, there’s evidence of it all over the world. Consider the debate regarding gun control in America for instance. One person (Sam) might be in favor of gun control and start seeking out opinion pieces and news stories on the internet that affirm there’s a greater need for restrictions on gun ownership.
Whenever Sam hears about shootings in the media, she’ll use this information as a way to back up her existing argument and highlight how her beliefs are correct. Alternatively, another person (Kate), might be adamantly against gun control. She would seek out alternative news sources aligned with this position. When Kate comes across stories about shootings, she may look at them in a different way, suggesting if more people had access to guns, the wrong people could be stopped.
People with entirely opposing views can even use the same information taken from a different perspective to contribute to their case and demonstrate how their bias is correct. This can lead to ongoing arguments which never really get resolved.
The Impact of Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias can be a dangerous thing in various circumstances. According to a study from Peter Cathcart Watson, in the 1960s, people have a natural tendency to seek information which confirms their existing beliefs, which often means they fail to look at situations objectively. This kind of bias can also influence the decisions we make, and lead to poor choices.
During an election season, for instance, it’s common for people to seek out positive information which helps to paint the candidate they want to win in the correct light. At the same time, many people will also look for information which helps to cast the opposing candidate in a more negative light. By failing to seek out objective facts, and interpreting information in a way which only supports their existing beliefs, these individuals often miss out on important pieces of information.
By failing to seek out all the facts during a decision-making process, people enter a kind of cognitive dissonance, disconfirming important information and only remembering the details that uphold their existing believes. This is a problematic form of heuristic decision-making because it means your personal beliefs cloud your point of view.
Confirmation bias affects what you do, and how you process information. In some cases, your point of view and overconfidence about certain pieces of information can lead to problems in your personal life too, because your cognition clouds your ability to listen to others.
Where Does Confirmation Bias Come from?
Expert groups like the American psychological association agree there are a number of different forms of cognitive dissonance in the world today.
Experimental social psychology and leaders in the cognitive world are still exploring why so many of us embrace confirmation bias in hypothesis testing.
Confirmation bias is just one example of how human beings can process information in a biased and illogical manner. There are many factors which can influence our likelihood of cognitive bias. For instance, philosophers believe humans have difficulty processing information rationally at all once they’ve formed an opinion about something.
Our interpersonal relationships and experiences mean we automatically favor information once we already feel a certain way. Alternatively, we’re more capable of processing information correctly if we are emotionally distant from an issue.
Interestingly confirmation bias does provide a relatively efficient way of processing information. We’re living in a world where we’re constantly bombarded with information from social media and a host of different environments. It would take time to explore every disconfirming and confirmatory piece of evidence carefully.
Confirmation bias is also a way for us to protect our self-esteem. Ignoring contradictory evidence that would prove us wrong about something means we can continue to feel good about ourselves, our knowledge, and our beliefs. No-one likes to feel as though they’ve made a mistake or misunderstood something. This means even if we begin to think our own beliefs are wrong, we may double down on selective exposure to certain viewpoints to protect ourselves.
How Does Confirmation Bias Influence the World?
The attribution of additional weight to certain perceptions over others can have a significant impact on various parts of the world. Preconceptions in beliefs have impacted everything from medicine to law. For instance, medical doctors often believe they have a specific “hunch” about the diagnosis of a medical condition early in the discovery process. This hunch can interfere with how the doctor looks at the evidence and suggests treatment.
There are also examples of the impact of confirmation bias in how patients respond to a diagnosis in the medical world. People are more likely to agree with a diagnosis if it supports their preferred outcome. This is often why a lot of people seek out second opinions when they’re unhappy with a result from a test or diagnosis.
There are various examples of “myside bias” and confirmation bias in neuroscience and the journal of experimental psychology. In the context of law, jurors and judges often form opinion about a defendant’s innocence or guilt based on their pre-existing beliefs about people.
Once an opinion is formed, the new information obtained during a trial is likely to be processed according to the confirmation bias already in place. This can lead to unfair verdicts, which is why so many people frequently raise concerns about capital punishment.
Even in personal relationships, confirmation bias can be problematic because it often leads us to form inaccurate and biased impressions of other people. This frequently leads to conflict and miscommunications in group settings. What’s more, by treating someone according to your pre-existing expectations, you increase the risk that person will unintentionally change their behavior to confirm to these expectations, providing further support for the confirmation bias.
Understanding Confirmation Bias
The various real world examples of confirmation bias have launched a number of pieces of research into rule discovery and processes based on this concept. You can find plenty of information from Tetlock, Snyder, Stanford University, Lepper, Kunda, and other experts about the concept of confirmation bias to further your education.
The unfortunate truth is all human beings have confirmation bias. Even if you believe yourself to be very open-minded, and only observe the facts before you come to conclusions, it’s likely some bias will end up shaping your opinion eventually. It can be very difficult to battle this natural tendency to look at information in a certain way.
However, if we, as a community, understand confirmation bias, how it works, and why it’s so problematic to the way we look at the world, we can make a more active effort to be aware of it. Simply being curious about opposing views and listening to what other people say and why can make a huge difference to how we perceive the world.