Confirmation Bias

We’ve heard a great deal about fake news in the last 18 months. One would think that “news” that was obviously fake would not survive long in the information age, but instead it seems to thrive. The hoax-checking site Snopes – which has itself been attacked (or satired, I supposed) by fake news sites – last year identified a sizable list of fake news sites to avoid, but the list is far from comprehensive. While some sites are very overtly satirical, such as The Onion or The Duffle Blog, other sites claiming to be “satire” are much more subtle. Occasionally these sites are even able to fool real news outlets into carrying fake stories, sometimes by using deceptive URLs (like ABCNews.com.co, which is in no way affiliated with ABC news.), giving these hoaxes increase exposure and credibility and making them more difficult to properly debunk.

But the number one reason these sometimes ridiculous stories persist is a type of cognitive bias called “Confirmation Bias.”

Confirmation bias is the practice of finding only information that supports one’s preconceptions about a topic. If you think Snopes or Fact Check or Politifact are themselves biased, you can certainly find information on the internet to prove yourself right. Whether you think Donald Trump is the worst or the best president ever, there is information to support your position. People don’t prefer to feel wrong, so they generally do not go out of their way to find information that challenges their views. And, irrespective of what view you hold on a topic, there is an enormous amount of information available on the internet to support your claim and refute your opposition. (Easy access to vast amounts of information is both a pro and a con to the internet.)

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So how can we avoid the confirmation bias trap?

Most opinions are predicated upon a set of facts that we can objectively measure. In order to avoid falling prey to deliberate efforts to mislead us, or just intellectual laziness, we have to sometimes be willing to challenge our assumptions about a topic. If you feel strongly about a topic, it could be with very good reason, but that does not mean that every piece of information you hear or see that reinforces your opinion is correct. When obtaining new information, always evaluate the source. Does the source provide information that uniformly supports a partisan position of some sort? When providing information, does the source provide verifiable citations or references for its factual claims? Can events or facts be verified through otehr sources of information? Is the source subject to any kind of scrutiny (such as peer reviewed scientific journals)? Does the information source outright state that it is satire? (This one is frequently missed…) Is the information plausible?

All humans are subject to bias of some kind. It is sometimes difficult to identify the line between a reasonable assessment and a bias or prejudice. We need to be willing to consider the fact that we are mistaken about a topic in order to ensure objectivity. It is OK to find out that we have been mistaken and adjust our perspectives based on new information. On the other hand, it can be quite harmful to persist in a mistaken notion. As uncomfortable as it may be, challenging our strongly held opinions  to make sure they hold up to scrutiny is a valuable exercise. If you can challenge your own preconceptions, you will be better equipped to challenge other views successfully, if they are predicated on bad information.

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5 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias

    1. It’s no easy feat to overcome someone’s deep-rooted bias. Confirmation bias is one type of cognitive bias. The is a complementary cognitive bias (the name of which I cannot recall) which causes one to reject information provided that does not conform to their worldview. Most people who go out of their way to find information that supports their presuppositions will not be easily convinced by contradictory information. Someone who strongly believes the world is flat will reject scientific information to the contrary.

      The best advice I can think of when trying to reach someone with a deep-seated bias is to ask them about why they feel so strongly about the topic,and then genuinely listen. Try to understand what drives the position. Identify any areas of common ground; these are opportunities for further conversation. Often even the most staunch supporters of seemingly (or definitively) wrong-headed ideas will have some foundation concern with which you can identify. If you can find something to share, then you won’t be as readily perceived as the enemy when you finally provide information that challenges their view. Don’t push too hard; sometimes just planting the seed is sufficient to put them on the path to correcting their position. Exerting too much pressure or pressure at the wrong point can shut down the entire effort.

      The more difficult part is that one must also be willing to accept that their information is more correct. It might not be, but sometime we can be surprised to learn that a belief we have held for a very long time was predicated on bad information.

      In short, if you want someone to consider your position, you must be willing to consider theirs.

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    1. It’s a topic that definitely lends itself to lengthy conversation. What recommendations did you provide on how to avoid bias?

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