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Three Ways to Prevent Confirmation Bias

In a previous blog, we focused on unconscious bias. However, another type of bias that is equally damaging to society is confirmation bias. With the exponential increase of content sources like social media, email, text, targeted advertising, etc. the human brain is now loaded daily with 34 GB of information. With this trend, it becomes human nature to start filtering our information sources and gravitating towards those that already confirm our beliefs.

Confirmation bias is defined as the selective collection of evidence. In other words, our subconscious tendency is to seek and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs. It can be most entrenched around beliefs and ideas that we are strongly attached to or that provoke a significant emotional response such as politics and religion.

As early as the fifth century BC, the historian Thucydides noted words to the effect that “when a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.” The cognitive psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason was one of the first social scientists to prove this theory. Through his experiment known as Wason's rule discovery task, he was able to clearly demonstrate that people have a tendency to seek information that already confirms their existing beliefs.

Confirmation bias can manifest in three main ways – the biased search for information, the biased interpretation of evidence, and biased memory, i.e. when someone selectively recalls information that reinforces his or her expectations. For example, as Sharon Begley pointed out in her article called "The Limits of Reason”, there are people that believe Saddam Hussein plotted 9/11 or that President Obama was not born in America, but “… to believe either one of these requires suspending some of our critical-thinking faculties and succumbing instead to the kind of irrationality that drives the logically minded crazy.”

So, what can we actually do about confirmation bias?

  1. We can look at sources of information outside of our normal comfort zone and try to be open-minded about the viewpoint that is being represented. That does not mean that we will necessarily change our mind on a particular topic, but we might become more tolerant of another opinion and perhaps even reconsider that not all issues are simply black and white.

  2. Check all the facts before we draw a conclusion about an important issue. At some point, we have all been the recipient of false information that we wanted to believe. Rather than accepting things blindly, we should be willing to take the extra time and investigate for ourselves. There is hope that we can change our minds. As Emma Roller pointed out in a NY Times article in 2016, “Fact-checking can be like exposure therapy for partisans, and there is some reason to believe in what researchers call an effective tipping point, where 'motivated reasoners' start to accept hard truths after seeing enough claims debunked over and over."

  3. Acknowledge our confirmation bias and try to meet somewhere in the middle on some of the most important and vexing problems that we are trying to solve. In order for a democracy to truly work, we all need to realize that everyone cannot get what they want 100% of the time. The art of compromise is crucial if we want to start healing the wounds of the current polarization in our country.


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