Confirmation Bias

When I am writing new drafts, I am constantly challenged by thinking “outside the box” when suggesting ways to overcome problems because we are limited to what we know. It can be a challenge to think laterally, and it can be difficult to overcome the confirmation bias and to work with a beginner’s mind. For instance, if you go through a book and don’t disagree with anything, it’s likely because of a confirmation bias. Reading movie reviews before watching them influences how you think about the movie later on. This is one reason why I only read about films after watching them. Another similar example: If you’re going to watch a broadway show that you know is great (as you may have heard from others), you’re more likely to think of it as great (even when it’s not and particularly when you’ve spent a lot of money to see it).

As American physicist, Richard P. Feynman has famously said:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

Confirmation bias is simply when we pay attention to things that support our existing beliefs and worldviews and ignore things that run contrary to them. We pay attention to information that supports our conclusions and ignore information that doesn’t. We look for things that support our existing views and beliefs. We would rather be reassured of our decisions rather than find out what is really true.

Warren Buffett (on confirmation bias):

What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.

Any time you have a reaction to something that is automatic, it is likely due to a bias. This is why experts have to be more careful (not less) than their non-expert counterparts about looking for information that disproves what they know. As an expert, I have found myself being aware of this many times, though I hadn’t figured out a way to articulate it until now.

Looking at our horoscopes in the papers is a perfect example of confirmation bias at play. When you look at the most-listened-to tracks by an artist, and you listen to their tracks later, you may be inclined to like them more. It’s hard to be objective and really listen to tracks for what they are. I’ll often find myself removing those tracks later on. Not liking those tracks at the outset would mean going against the tide in a way. It’s easy to feel wrong about your music taste (especially when something is a popular choice) rather than treating it as a matter of preference and saying it wasn’t for you (same with books, films, games, etc.). Another example could be adding books (apps or products) to your wishlist by simply looking at the positive reviews and not nearly seeing enough reviews that disprove it.

Mark Twain:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

Another example: if you were a Verified Reviewer on Amazon (or even an author yourself) and you wrote a negative review for a book, Amazon will likely not post it to protect its best-selling authors (so they can keep selling more books). In such a case, the reviewer is forced to write a review elsewhere (such as their weblog), but more importantly, it leaves the prospective readers of that book on Amazon deprived of their opinions because Amazon is so appalled by the reviewer’s reaction. This is the kind of thing that will make you look at those five-star reviews of books with suspicion because who knows how much censorship Amazon (or even other publishers) are actually doing (and thus, confirming your biases).

The fact that tech companies sort your news feed in terms of what you are likely to click rather than what should appear chronologically based on who you follow is a perfect example. For instance, if you’re a liberal, you’re more likely to see the news feed set up that way, all in the name of “personalization”. The same goes for conservatives.

Ditto in politics. We are more likely to hear the positive things about the party we support and ignore the negative things about it. In other words, we hear what we want to hear to confirm our own biases and ignore the rest.

Leo Tolstoy has aptly said:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

One reason my work helps successful and overworked business owners so much is that I help them see their blind spots. When you’re working in an organization, you are more likely to do things that confirm your existing set of beliefs. It’s hard to be objective when you are in the culture rather than working on it. This is why I am able to bring an outsider’s perspective to the challenging situations at hand when working with these individuals in organizations.

Here are some ideas for overcoming confirmation bias.

It’s okay to have thoughtful opinions about things as long as you are open to changing them. Here is what I wrote in an earlier draft:

It’s okay to change your mind about things, but that requires having an open and empty mind to begin with. That requires a relentless pursuit of “the truth”. It’s hard to think differently or laterally without having an open mind. For instance, doing ethnography would be impossible without it.

Stop looking for things that simply support your point of view and start looking for things that are contrary; either way, you’ll learn something. If you turn out to be wrong, then you should be grateful for it, and when you turn out to be right, then pat yourself on the back. Actively look for sources that challenge your line of thinking. For instance, when I am writing drafts, I try to argue for things not just in support of ideas, but also argue against them by playing devil’s advocate.

Spend time with people who challenge your worldviews. Don’t be afraid to have constructive discussions with friends and family about things. Give yourself permission to be divergent (wrong). How else will you learn? For instance, if you keep meeting the same set of people who have the same opinions, you’re not allowing yourself to grow.

It’s easy to let your ego get in the way by thinking you were wrong all along, but realize it’s not about you as much as it’s about being accurate with the facts for the idea in question. It should be more important for you to pursue the truth rather than care about being right. It’s okay to change your mind about things. Ultimately, this boils down to being self-aware. Use affirmations to believe things about yourself that aren’t true (yet), but nonetheless, help you succeed in your endeavors.

Learn to pause more. Be curious about things and consider them before letting your previously-held biases/beliefs take over. Consider an alternative viewpoint or perspective in how you see things. There is more than one way to see things. It goes beyond simply being right or wrong (and good or bad). Two people can see the exact same thing and form different conclusions; it’s not logical, but psychological. Besides, real-life situations are complex and rarely black and white; they require thinking from multiple angles to intrepret and understand them.

Expose yourself to the facts rather than getting carried away by your emotions, which looks for things that are likely to support your own biases in your own mind. Learn to clearly distinguish between facts and opinions:

We’re all entitled to our own opinion (not to our own facts). Learn to identify what’s factual and what isn’t. We need to be able to engage in healthy argument/debate with others in terms of intellectual development without self-editing. Don’t be afraid to say what’s on your mind. Let the other person respond to it.

Not all confirmation bias is bad, however. There are also some positives. For instance, if you are an optimist, then you see the world with optimism. Now, that’s a conscious choice you make. Or take my mother’s case; when she had pain in her leg, she kept telling herself (and others) that she was recovering (rather than telling them it was painful). She did recover quickly after that, but the point is your optimism can positively impact your recovery process. Even if it doesn’t, at the very least, it’s likely to reduce the suffering or how you feel about it, which also goes a long way toward healing.

We are exposed to so much information in our modern times that it’s hard to process it all without having our minds create mental shortcuts (which can often work to its detriment). We can’t keep finding new ways to do things especially when we are doing the same things repeatedly. It makes sense to use our minds for creating cognitive shortcuts to how we think about things to conserve mental energy, which saves time when making decisions for things that matter. This way, it’s also easier to recall information selectively that is already confirmed by our existing beliefs, but we need to be careful to not let it run without bounds.

Here’s the thing. We don’t want to admit we were wrong all along (if we were), so we keep doing the same things in support of our existing beliefs in order to protect our ego. We only see things (by default) that we are prepared to understand.

As Robertson Davies has said:

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.

When we look for things that support our point of view, we are only reinforcing what we already know, but where’s the fun in that? You are not learning anything new this way. You are playing an amateur’s game, and when you are afraid of being wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

If you keep looking for things to support your existing views and beliefs, you will always be “right”. You have to care more about the truth (and open to being proven wrong) than about being right because you know it’s not about you as much as it’s about knowing what’s actually true.

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