What is Confirmation Bias?
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek information confirming preexisting beliefs while ignoring information contradicting them. This bias can be particularly problematic when making important decisions, leading to flawed reasoning and inaccurate conclusions. It is a type of cognitive bias.
Confirmation bias not only affects how we gather information, but it also impacts how we pay attention, interpret data, and remember information.
Attention: Individuals selectively attend to information confirming their preconceptions while ignoring information contradicting them. For example, someone who believes vaccines are harmful may focus on anecdotal stories of adverse reactions while ignoring large-scale studies demonstrating their safety.
Interpretation: Confirmation bias can cause individuals to interpret information in a way that confirms their preconceptions while disregarding alternative explanations. For example, a person who believes climate change is a hoax may interpret a cold winter as evidence that the planet is not warming, while disregarding the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Recall: Individuals remember information in a way that confirms their preconceptions while forgetting contradictory information. For example, a person who believes a political candidate is corrupt may remember every negative story they read about that candidate while forgetting positive reports contradicting their beliefs.
Learn more about other types in Cognitive Biases: Definition & Examples.
Why Does It Occur?
Confirmation bias is how our brains take shortcuts when we evaluate evidence. Our brains evolved to handle a much slower flow of information than the modern world provides. Historically, people didn’t get much new information during their lives and made most of their decisions for survival. But now, we are constantly bombarded by information from various sources, such as other people, the media, and our experiences.
Evaluating evidence can be challenging, especially when it’s complicated or unclear. Constantly assessing and challenging our worldview is a mentally exhausting process. Holding different, opposing ideas in our heads is hard work.
Our brains naturally take shortcuts to keep from feeling overwhelmed. It does this by recalling information that supports our preexisting views and discounting contradictory data. These shortcuts save us time and mental energy. It’s much easier to focus on just one worldview and dismiss or ignore any information that challenges it.
This process leads to a confirmation bias feedback loop, where our beliefs become more entrenched over time, making it increasingly difficult to see evidence that doesn’t fit our existing views.
So we prefer to strengthen our worldview by seeking, interpreting, and remembering ideas that support it.
Confirmation Bias Examples
To better understand these problems, let’s look at a few examples of confirmation bias.
Political polarization: In today’s highly polarized political climate, confirmation bias is a significant issue. Many people seek out news sources that confirm their political beliefs and dismiss those that don’t. This practice can lead to a limited perspective on political issues, missed opportunities to consider alternative viewpoints, and ultimately, a widening political divide.
Medical decisions: Confirmation bias can also impact medical choices. For example, a doctor may be biased towards a particular treatment because they have had success with it previously and ignore evidence suggesting a different treatment may be more effective. This disregard can lead to missed opportunities to provide patients with the best care.
Investment decisions: Finally, confirmation bias can also impact investment decisions. An investor may be biased towards a particular stock or market because they have had success with it and ignore evidence suggesting a different investment may be more prudent. This approach can lead to missed opportunities to diversify a portfolio and mitigate risk.
Problems It Causes
There are a few different types of problems that can arise from confirmation bias:
Limited perspective: When individuals seek information that confirms their beliefs and ignore contradictory evidence, they get a narrow view of the issue. Without a full range of information, it’s hard to make informed decisions.
Missed opportunities: Confirmation bias can also lead to missed opportunities, as individuals may overlook important information or ideas that don’t align with their preconceived notions.
Polarization: Finally, confirmation bias can lead to polarization, as individuals become increasingly entrenched in their beliefs and less open to considering other perspectives.
Signs of Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias can be challenging to identify, as it often occurs subconsciously. However, some signs can indicate the presence of confirmation bias, including:
Selective exposure: People may actively seek information confirming their beliefs and avoid information contradicting them.
Misremembering: People may unconsciously alter their memories to fit their beliefs or remember information in a way that confirms their preconceptions.
Cherry-picking: People may selectively choose and interpret evidence to support their beliefs while ignoring evidence that contradicts them.
By understanding these symptoms of confirmation bias, individuals can work to become more aware of their own biases and make a more conscious effort to consider alternative viewpoints and evidence.
Tips for Avoiding Confirmation Bias
Awareness is vital for avoiding confirmation bias. By recognizing the potential for bias in our own thinking, we can be more vigilant in seeking information that challenges our beliefs and preconceptions. Here are a few tips to help avoid confirmation bias:
- Be open-minded: Try to approach new information with an open mind, even if it challenges your existing beliefs. Consider alternative viewpoints and be willing to revise your opinions if necessary to reduce confirmation bias.
- Seek out diverse sources: It’s essential to seek out information from a variety of sources, including those that may not align with your existing beliefs. This practice can help you gain a more balanced perspective and avoid reinforcing your biases.
- Evaluate the evidence: To minimize confirmation bias, take the time to evaluate the evidence presented to you and be willing to change your beliefs in light of new information. Avoid cherry-picking evidence that supports your preconceptions, and be skeptical of sources that make extraordinary claims.
- Be mindful of your emotions: Our emotions can influence our thinking and lead us to overlook or dismiss evidence that contradicts our beliefs. Be aware of your emotional responses and try to approach new information with a calm and rational mindset.
Keeping these tips in mind and staying vigilant against confirmation bias can improve your critical thinking skills and help you make better decisions.
Hart W, Albarracín D, Eagly AH, Brechan I, Lindberg MJ, Merrill L. Feeling validated versus being correct: a meta-analysis of selective exposure to information. Psychol Bull. 2009 Jul;135(4):555-88.
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