Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias

March 16, 2022 0 By Rick

The last week has been tough. We’ve been subjected to propaganda, lies, false-flag operations, disinformation, bots, trolls and God knows what else. That’s why I’m writing about confirmation bias. So, what is confirmation bias. We’ve all been guilty of this at some point or another. It’s human nature, I’m afraid. And in these chaotic times and highly polarized world, it’s important to recognize it whether it’s your confirmation bias or someone else’s. The dictionary defines confirmation bias as “the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.” I define it as believing what we want to believe even when presented with facts to the contrary. This particular way of making decisions is unintentional for the most part. When you combine your own expectations with your beliefs, you’re likely to evaluate new information in a manner that supports your existing beliefs, especially when the issue is important. Confirmation bias is a great example of how people can be unaware that they’re processing information in an illogical and biased manner, especially once they’ve developed an opinion on an issue. So, why do we do this?

Efficient information processing
Given the tsunami of information that washes over us 24/7, it’s impossible for us to process each piece of information carefully. We need to see multiple viewpoints to prevent being biased, but we don’t seem to have the time to do this. Instead, we interpret information from our own point of view because it’s quick. We rely on automatic, instinctive reflexes to protect ourselves from harm. Self-esteem also plays an important role here. We like to feel good about ourselves and discovering that a belief we hold to be very important is wrong makes us feel bad about ourselves. To avoid that bad feeling, we often seek information that supports or confirms our existing beliefs. And, of course, people want to be correct and feel intelligent.

How does it work?
Where decision-making is concerned, once we decide, we look for information that supports it and ignore information that conflicts with the decision we made. Moreover, we’re able to remember or come up with more “facts” supporting our side in a controversial issue than the opposite side. It’s not that we can’t come up with arguments against our own beliefs. No, we just aren’t motivated to do so. Or simply don’t want to for other reasons. When I was serving as a diplomat in Najaf, Iraq (160 km south of Baghdad), I was tasked by Embassy Baghdad with writing a cable (a report back to Washington higher-ups) a day, seven days a week because this was the focal point of US foreign policy after the bloody battles between the US Marines and Al-Sadr’s thugs – the Mahdi Army. I interviewed everyone I could find to get my material for cables. The situation was not pretty. After two weeks, Embassy Baghdad (no names mentioned here) told me, “Rick, you must understand, DC only wants to hear good news.” I replied, “Yes sir – I understand. And as soon as I have good news to report, I will. In the meantime, how can you make good decisions without truthful and accurate information?” That was confirmation bias at its worst.

Forming impressions
We often form impressions before we meet someone or undertake a new endeavor. For example, if we’re told someone is friendly, positive and easy to get along with when we meet that person, we’ll be looking for information that supports our expectations. We are likely to ask that person questions that will solicit answers that confirm our expectations. And once we’ve heard those answers, we’re convinced we are correct in our beliefs. As a teacher at an exclusive military boarding school in southern California, just prior to school starting in September, I was given a stack of reports on the students in my new class. As I started to read through them, I was shocked (and disappointed) at all the negative things mentioned – medications, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, etc. I hadn’t even met my new students yet. I gave the papers back to my principal and said, “I don’t want to form any impressions about these kids before I’ve interacted with them. I want every student to walk through my door as a blank slate, not a potential problem.” I nearly got fired, but in the end, I got my way. Had I read those reports, it’s likely that I would have succumbed to information bias and not given these kids a fair shake.

Examples are everywhere
Prior to forensic science and modern investigative techniques, prosecutors and judges relied mostly on eyewitness accounts. The problem here is that confirmation bias can cause witnesses to make assumptions that aren’t based on fact. Two people viewing the same incident can also provide different accounts based on their previous biases. A person who is afraid of dogs and therefore dislikes them could give a different account of an attack than someone who loves dogs. And if you’re someone with low self-esteem and you call someone who doesn’t reply, you’re likely to assume the person doesn’t like you because you already thought so. A romantic relationship can go downhill quickly if one person believes the other is cheating without having any proof. And one late night or unexplained absence just confirms it. No matter how harmless the evidence is, people who have a confirmation bias can use it to validate what they believe. We should all do our best to avoid confirmation bias – even if it’s not easy. Keep a cool head, check your sources, use your good judgment and keep an open mind.