Have you ever wondered why it feels so difficult to change your mind? Or, why do we people fight back with so much conviction when our views are challenged?
The answer is that our mental biases often come in the way of processing information from the world around us. One such barrier is confirmation bias — a tendency to favor information that coincides with our existing beliefs and opinions.
In this article, we’ll explain in detail how and why it occurs, why it’s bad, and what you can do to overcome it.
What Is the Confirmation Bias?
Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that describes our tendency to cherry-pick, recall, and interpret information so that it confirms our existing ideas, views, and values.
In other words, we naturally want to ignore evidence that would disconfirm the beliefs we already have. This effect is especially pronounced when the issue is important or emotionally charged to us.
For example, if a researcher believes that their theory — a theory they’ve spent a lot of time and effort creating — is true, they’ll be inclined to favor new information in a way that reinforces their prior conclusions while rejecting evidence that don’t.
Interestingly, this type of tendency is not a new phenomenon — it seems it’s been around almost as long as humans have been writing history: Thucydides, an Athenian historian who lived between 460-400 BC, wrote the following in The History of the Peloponnesian War:
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.
In the 1960s, cognitive psychologist Peter Wason conducted a well-known study known as the Wason’s Rule Discovery Task.
The participants of the study were to identify a rule that applies to a sequence of three numbers, such as 2-4-6, by testing different sequences until they had found out the correct rule. The results demonstrated the confirmation bias in action: the participants were heavily inclined to confirm their existing hypotheses and didn’t consider challenging them.
For example, if they thought that the rule was even numbers, they would try sequences such as 4-8-10, 6-8-12, and 20-22-24. If they were told that these fit the rule, they would conclude the rule was to use even numbers. However, the correct rule was simply increasing numbers, which they failed to discover because they didn’t try out disconfirming sequences.
Why Does It Happen?
Confirmation bias occurs not because people can’t generate alternative arguments, but because they want to avoid thinking about contradictory evidence and arguments. This mostly happens on an unconscious level and is thus unintentional on the part of the individual.
Why are we predisposed to shut opposing information out? One explanation is that it’s a more efficient way to process information: Evaluating new information in a thorough and impartial manner takes up a great deal of energy and would require us to frequently alter, or even completely change, our existing views about ourselves and the world around us. As such, we relieve ourselves from the cognitive load and choose the details that coincide with what we already best know of.
Another explanation is our need to be “right.” People value highly their own beliefs and feel good when they are right about something. If they find their beliefs challenged, they feel threatened and want to defend themselves.
Why Is Confirmation Bias Bad?
Confirmation bias can be harmful because it makes us hold on to our existing views about the world, and some of these views are bound to be inaccurate or simply false.
Selecting information is much like picking cherries off the top of a cake: you pick what you like best and ignore the rest. The obvious consequence is that reaching the truth of things flies out of the question, which easily causes misplaced confidence and poor decision-making.
Importantly, this effect is pronounced when the issue is important or emotionally charged to us; we have stronger opinions that we are especially keen to retain. On the other hand, being emotionally distant from it, or barely affected by it, likely leads to a low level of confirmation bias.
How to Overcome It?
As with any other deeply rooted tendency, confirmation bias is not easy to tackle. However, with the right knowledge and tools, we can reduce its impact on our thinking.
Naturally, the first and most important step is to be aware of its existence — which you’ve already got covered if you’ve read this far. This alone can help you look past it and evaluate your own judgment on a deeper level.
You can also read about mitigating biases more generally here.
Now, here are a few points to consider:
Take an Objective Approach
Strive to look at things objectively.
When we assess situations, our ego gets often in the way and we only look at things that will benefit us in some way. This obviously prevents us from accepting new ideas and finding better solutions.
In order to conquer this, you have to push your personal preferences and presuppositions to the side, and accept that you don’t know everything. For instance, when someone is challenging an idea you agree with, pay more attention to their reasons for it rather than simply think about how you can prove them wrong.
Once you are good at this, you will see situations in more than just one dimension.
Question Your Own Ideas
In addition to objectivity, another way to combat this bias is to poke holes in your own ideas and beliefs.
Now, although it’s not desirable to doubt yourself in every turn, it’s important to stress-test your views when there are significant consequences involved.
The goal should be to get from “I’m right” to “this is right.”
You can achieve this by actively looking for disconfirming evidence. For example, you may:
- reflect on information you have that goes against your views,
- find and listen to people who disagree with you,
- or read books or articles that makes an opposing argument.
Think for Yourself
In today’s world, it can be difficult and time-consuming to dig up and evaluate all the useful information available about a topic. So, we sometimes end up taking someone else’s opinions and protecting them like they are our own.
Thinking for yourself means that you practice a healthy level of skepticism and don’t accept ideas — especially the more impactful ones — as absolute truths just because someone tells you so. By doing this, you are able to think critically and change your mind when needed. It might also mean that, not only is finding answers more difficult, but you may not find an answer to a question, and that’s ok.
If you wanna learn one of the best ways to gain a deep understanding of a subject over superficial memorization, take a look at the Feynman Technique.