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What is Confirmation Bias?

How Belief Makes Things Reality

What is Confirmation Bias?
October 20, 2020 iteachus
Young man anticipating results on a laptop.

What is Confirmation Bias?

According to Dictionary.com, Confirmation Bias is: “bias that results from the tendency to process and analyze information in such a way that it supports one’s preexisting ideas and convictions.”

Have you ever been watching the news, or reading social media and heard something that just didn’t sound right or true? After you scratched your head, did you do your own research or respond to their claims rebutting their “facts”? I know that for me when I read something I believe is incorrect I want to immediately respond with my own beliefs. However, over the years I’ve learned to pause and think, “Is my information actually true?”

It seems that there are a number of areas where confirmation bias can come into play, but what happens when our experience doesn’t align with what we have been taught? I remember when in the 1990’s there was a sudden diet craze where fat was being removed from a number of foods. “Fat Makes You Fat” seemed to be the buzz phrase of the day and so foods were labeled with “Fat Free!” I distinctly remember a friend of mine eating Apple Jacks cereal right out of a box and proclaiming, “It’s fat free!” with the assumption that because it lacked fat that it was healthy. Because of information he had gathered and what was being touted on news and authors at the time, my friend totally neglected the data around sugar and calories and simple basic science around healthy eating. Eventually, the “Fat Makes You Fat” theory was debunked and of course a new fad soon followed.

The thing about beliefs and data that are challenging is that many people want there to be a clear defining path for right and wrong, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy – and the reality is that there is more gray area than we are comfortable with.

A Quick Video on Confirmation Bias

“Always question everything… because we grow by keeping an open mind.”

In the short video above we get a simple and clear explanation of how when our beliefs are challenged, we feel discomfort. When we believe something to be true, we often seek out information to reinforce our beliefs and discard opposing evidence to the contrary. So why is it so hard to admit to being wrong? According to an article in Psychology Today, humans find discomfort when their ideas and beliefs aren’t aligned, and they feel “bulletproof” when their ideas are aligned:

“Think of your three brains — human/thinking, mammalian/emotional, reptilian/actional as stacked on top of each other (human on top of mammalian, mammalian on top of reptilian). When they are stacked seamlessly and aimed at a specific goal, on a specific mission and everything is lined up that way, you feel greatly empowered, dare I say in some cases, “bulletproof.”

However, when the goal/reality shifts and the way the three brains are lined up is counterproductive or even destructive, and the new reality is not going to change (remember the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”), your three brains cannot literally stand long without the reality finally sinking in that you are out of whack.

So the reason people can’t stand being wrong is that their three brains cannot stand being misaligned with their current reality for long. The feeling that their three brains are becoming “unglued” is intolerable.”

Flat Earthers and Confirmation Bias

I live in Denton, Texas and there is a man named Patrick Burke who has gained quite a bit of attention over the years for his evangelism of his flat earth beliefs. In the picture below you can see that his house has been used as a billboard to spread the news about the fact that the earth is flat – and motionless.

Flat East Denton Texas

Home of Patrick Burke in Denton, Texas

We are not here to argue whether or not the earth is round or flat, only to show that Burke has reinforced his beliefs based on data that supports his views – regardless of mountains of evidence to the contrary. (Read more about Burke here)

The purpose of this example is just to show that Burke has spent time reinforcing his ideas and wants others to believe what he believes is true as well. Burke, is proving the point of the aforementioned Psychology Today article in that he feels empowered when his ideas and beliefs are aligned and confirmed – and that isn’t a bad thing, that is human nature. It only becomes a problem when we are unwilling to look at all the data and keep an open mind, that our beliefs may indeed be wrong. And I can’t speak for Burke on this either, he may be very open-minded when it comes to hearing other opinions.

Take “the Other” Out To Lunch

From the Ted Talk by Elizabeth Lesser that was given 10 years ago…

“I’m deeply disturbed by the ways in which all of our cultures are demonizing “the other,” by the voice we’re giving to the most divisive among us. Listen to these titles of some of the best-selling books from both sides of the political divide here in the US: “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot,” “Pinheads and Patriots,” “Arguing with Idiots.” They’re supposedly tongue-in-cheek, but they’re actually dangerous. Now here’s a title that may sound familiar, but whose author may surprise you: “Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.” Who wrote that? That was Adolf Hitler’s first title for “Mein Kampf” — “My Struggle” — the book that launched the Nazi Party. The worst eras in human history, whether in Cambodia or Germany or Rwanda — they start like this, with negative otherizing. And then they morph into violent extremism.”

“This is why I’m launching a new initiative. And it’s to help all of us, myself included, to counteract the tendency to otherize. And I realize we’re all busy people, so don’t worry, you can do this on a lunch break. I’m calling my initiative ‘Take the Other to Lunch.'”

Elizabeth Lesser’s words continue to ring true today. I believe that is why confirmation bias, and understanding why we believe what we believe is important.

Confirmation Bias in a Nutshell

These simple bullet points from Simply Psychology sum this up nicely:

  • Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs or hypotheses.
  • Confirmation bias happens when a person gives more weight to evidence that confirms their beliefs and undervalues evidence that could disprove it.
  • People display this bias when they gather or recall information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way.
  • The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

The important thing to remember when it comes to our beliefs is to keep an open mind. Your beliefs might be almost 100% correct, but as new data is brought into light, be willing to change and accept that you might be wrong. Also, avoid negative “otherizing” or “generalizing” people groups or seeing people as just a particular label. Humans are much more complex than the labels we often apply to them.

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