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Confirmation Bias: The Worst of Humanity

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation BiasWhy is the Pocketblog writing about ‘the worst of humanity’? Because nothing is fixed. But if you don’t know how Confirmation Bias works, you are powerless to deal with it.

Confirmation Bias is just one of many cognitive biases and thinking traps our giant, yet lazy, brains are prey to. But it is the one that is responsible for the most ills in the world. And it is also responsible for bad judgments in business, politics, and public administration.

So, we think it falls very much within the scope of our Big Ideas series. Unless you understand the big idea of what confirmation bias is, you cannot take it on with the simple tools that are available to you.

Why Do We have Biases Like Confirmation Bias?

I think it is Daniel Kahneman who explains it best. And he does so in his astonishing and (for any manager, leader, professional or business-person) must-read book, ‘Thinking: Fast and Slow’.

He suggests the metaphor of our brain having two modes of thinking: System 1 and System 2.

System 1: Thinking Fast

System 1 has evolved to give rapid answers to simple questions.

‘Is there danger?’
‘Run!’

It can assimilate loads of data from our environment. But it then discards most of it, to form a rapid interpretation, based on simple rules (learned and innate). Psychologists call these rules ‘heuristics’.

System 2: Thinking Slow

System 2 has evolved to allow deliberate, careful assessment of all the evidence. As a result, System 2 is slow. And it is also more effortful for us to use it. Indeed, it actually uses more energy to power our brain through System 2 thinking.

System 1 Hijack – the Origin of Bias

When you sit down to consider something carefully, it’s System 2 you are using. But often, we don’t think things over carefully. You see an internet meme or a post on your favourite social media channel and you don’t think carefully – you react. That’s System 1 hijacking your thinking.

Often, System 1 gets things right. It certainly did when we depended on it for our survival. And, often, its default is the equivalent of ‘run’. Doing so and being wrong has minimal adverse consequences. Not doing so and being wrong results in the lopping-off of your own branch of your family tree.

But, in our complex world, System 1 often gets things wrong. It over-simplifies situations and follows rules that don’t apply. Every rule imposes a cognitive bias. And some biases – like confirmation bias – are dangerous.

What is Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation bias is pretty simple to describe. Once you have formed an opinion about something, System 1 is primed. Now, you will be more ready to embrace any new evidence or information that supports that view than other facts or evidence that contradict it.

When it comes to thinking, there are few better resources on the web than the Farnham Street blog. If you are new to it, do explore (and see if you can spot where it gets its name!)

In their article on Confirmation Bias, they offer a simple picture that explains it beautifully. If only I could claim to have thought of it independently. So, I hope Shane will forgive me for making my own version…

Confirmation Bias

Selection Bias

Confirmation Bias is a close relative of Selection Bias. That is where we choose what information, facts, and evidence we use, and which we reject. And, usually, it will be the inconvenient truths we reject, in favour of the comfortingly familiar truths… and lies.

The Forms Confirmation Bias can Take

Confirmation bias can take a number of different forms. And, by the way, it is also sometimes known as ‘confirmatory bias’.

These forms include:

  • Jumping to Conclusions
    We form a quick conclusion based on scant evidence. Then hold to that conclusion by ignoring new evidence.
  • Mind Reading
    This is a particular form of jumping to conclusions, where we make an assessment of what another person is thinking by focusing on a select set of things we know – none of which includes what they are actually thinking. And, when they tell us ‘that wasn’t my intention’ – we then ignore all the evidence that they are telling the truth, and notice only the things that seem to confirm our mind-read.
  • Wishful Thinking
    We see a small amount of evidence that suggests that events could turn out in a way we hope for. So we then ignore new facts that suggest it may not do so. See also ‘blind optimism’ and ‘that won’t affect me’.
  • Data Blindness
    I’ve made my mind up. Don’t bombard me with data. As an old boss of mine used to say: ‘You wouldn’t want to spoil a good story with the facts’.
  • Prejudice
    Here it is… The BIG ONE. If I believe that ‘all hairy animals smell bad’ then, whenever I smell a hairy animal and it stinks, I will say ‘there you are… I was right’. But what if I meet a hairy animal with no scent? Or one that smells pleasant? That’s easy. I either ignore it or, worse, I assert ‘there’s the exception that proves the rule’.

And that’s Why Confirmation Bias is ‘the worst of humanity’

Take that prejudice and apply it to the way one group of people thinks about another group. Magnify it over the whole globe and all of history. Multiply by the destructive power of our ability to conceive of weapons, abuse, and degradation…

I would argue that confirmation bias is responsible for more pain, suffering, and torment than any other Big Idea. And that includes warfare. Because confirmation bias has probably driven most warfare anyway.

How to Overcome Confirmation Bias

The only way to overcome Confirmation Bias is to deliberately over-rule System 1. Make a conscious effort to gather all of the facts available. And then consider them all. In particular, look for those facts that appear to contradict what you thought you knew. And also those which challenge what ‘everyone knows’, and what other people are telling you.

This is the scientific method. What science tells us is that we cannot prove something is true. We could always find a new piece of information tomorrow that goes counter to our theory. The only thing we can do is prove something false. Countering confirmation bias means always being open to that one piece of data that falsifies your beliefs. And then being prepared to look for a new hypothesis that encompasses all the data – even the new piece.

By the way…

Am I saying that scientists are immune to confirmation bias? Most certainly not. They are all human (unless you have solid evidence to disprove that assertion).

And humans get things wrong. It is the scientific method that stands against confirmation bias. While scientists wield it day-to-day, of course some of them do, from time-to-time, get seduced by a belief they hold too closely. And, when they do, they too become blind to that one inconvenient fact.

What is Your experience of Confirmation Bias?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

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