What is Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation bias is a tendency to consider information that confirms what you already believe and that doesn’t challenge it. The American Psychological Association defines it this way: 

“the tendency to gather evidence that confirms preexisting expectations, typically by emphasizing or pursuing supporting evidence while dismissing or failing to seek contradictory evidence.”

Numerous experimental studies in social psychology have shown confirmation bias to be a common psychological bias, like attribution bias or the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Here’s an example. Suppose you hear about inflation in the US economy. You notice that there are two positions about it: 

  1. Inflation is transitory due to the COVID pandemic;
  2. Inflation is already here and ramping. 

Suppose that you are going to believe one of the two claims. If you are like most people, you have a tendency to favor information that confirms what you already believe and that doesn’t challenge it. 

One option is to seek pieces of information that confirm that inflation is transitory. You go to your browser and type, “Is inflation transitory due to the COVID pandemic?” and then you go on to read many sources that agree that inflation is transitory due to the COVID pandemic. You continue seeking more confirmation that inflation is transitory from your family, friends, and social network. And you avoid any sources that challenge this view. 

Another option is to seek pieces of information that confirm that inflation is already here. You go to your browser and type, “Is inflation already here and ramping?” and then you go on to read every source that agrees that inflation is already here and ramping. You continue seeking more confirmation that inflation is already here from your family, friends, and social media. And you avoid any sources that challenge this view. 

In both of the above cases, you are only seeking sources that confirm what you already believe. You don’t want to challenge your own belief about inflation. The tendency to look at only the sources that confirm your own beliefs is an example of confirmation bias.  

Confirmation bias is often what drives people to accept even the most absurd conspiracy theories. For example, my friend Josh believes that the species Bigfoot exists. Bigfoot is supposed to be a kind of animal living in the woods that looks half-human and half-chimp. Josh’s reason for believing that Bigfoot exists is based on two anecdotes. One night his friend, Steve, was driving around the woods at 2 am, and Steve saw something that he believed was Bigfoot. Later when Josh and Steve went to ask the local Native Americans, the locals forbade them from saying the word ‘Bigfoot’ because, they said, people who utter the word ‘Bigfoot’ have Bigfoot appear in their lives. After those two events, Josh declared that Bigfoot is real.

My friend Josh didn’t consider any information that would counter the belief that Bigfoot exists. For example, Josh never considered that we’ve never found remains of Bigfoot even though we’ve found remains of dinosaurs from millions of years ago. In addition, if it were true that uttering the name ‘Bigfoot’ were to bring Bigfoot in your life, then Josh and Steve could have sat in the woods with their guns and uttered the word ‘Bigfoot’ over and over to prompt Bigfoot to appear. Both of these considerations would have countered Josh’s belief that Bigfoot exists. But Josh wanted to believe that Bigfoot is real, and he was focused only on sources of information that supported his belief. Josh was biased. 

Something similar is true of people who believe that the earth is flat, that the moon landing was staged, or that the holocaust didn’t happen. These people step into an echo chamber to confirm their existing beliefs: when they say, “The earth is flat,” the sources they’ve surrounded themselves with echo back, “The earth is flat,” to further confirm what they believe. And the echo chamber never presents them with any sources that disconfirm their beliefs. In other words, people who endorse these views don’t want to see the world for what it is; they only want to see the world for what they want it to be.

Let’s look at another scenario. Let’s say you are looking to invest in a stock. You think that Amazon is a great investment, so you go online to find evidence to support your belief. You type into YouTube, “Amazon stock analysis,” and you watch many videos that echo back what you already believe about Amazon. YouTube is programmed to recognize viewer preferences. Now YouTube starts recommending more and more videos that further convince you that Amazon stock is going to soar. And later YouTube filters out any videos that are going to disconfirm your belief that Amazon stock is a great investment.  

It takes discipline and intellectual curiosity to find opposing viewpoints that challenge what you already believe instead of just confirming them. If you truly wanted to see Amazon stock for what it is, you would need to collect some disconfirming evidence and evaluate that evidence.

How to Detect Confirmation Bias

There’s an easy way to determine whether someone is manifesting confirmation bias. Ask them, “What are the arguments against your claim?” If they can’t answer the question, then they’re biased. For example, when I asked Josh for arguments against Bigfoot’s existence, it was clear to me that he had not sought any counterarguments.

You can ask yourself the question, “What are the arguments against my claim?” to detect the bias in yourself. Suppose you were looking to invest in Amazon stock. Ask yourself, “What are the arguments against buying Amazon stock?” If you can’t answer the question, then you’re biased.

How to Disarm Confirmation Bias 

To counteract confirmation bias, take these two steps. 

Step 1: Withhold Judgment

Withholding judgment is when you don’t make a decision about accepting or rejecting a claim. For good decision-making, you need to understand arguments both for and against a claim. You don’t make a judgment until you have looked at both sides of the claim.

By withholding judgment, you are in a position to see the claim from all angles and strengthen your commitment to knowing and understanding what’s true.

Step 2: Look for Evidence against the Claim Not Just for It.

“I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people do who are supporting it.” –Charlie Munger

This quote from Munger brings up a key strategy for disarming confirmation bias: you need to understand the argument against your position to avoid confirmation bias.

When you endorse a claim, you need to understand the arguments against it. For example, if I believe that Bigfoot exists, then I need to explore the arguments against my belief. I can start by asking some questions like these: If Bigfoot exists, then where are the Bigfoot remains? How come so many people utter the word ‘Bigfoot’ but he doesn’t appear? Answering these questions can get me thinking about possible arguments against Bigfoot’s existence.  

Disciplining yourself in the way Munger describes is a way to disarm confirmation bias. When you believe a claim, you need to look for contradictory evidence–i.e. evidence that disconfirms your pre-existing belief, not just evidence that confirms it. The impact of confirmation bias on your day-to-day life are numerous because confirmation bias affects cognition and how you process information. Among other things, focusing only on confirmatory evidence can lead to overconfidence in the accuracy of your beliefs. It can also distort your memories: even when people explore evidence that contradicts their beliefs, they tend only to recall information that confirms their beliefs. In addition, when people experience cognitive dissonance (that is, when they encounter evidence that contradicts their pre-existing beliefs), they tend to dismiss that evidence in favor of evidence that confirms those beliefs.

A freethinker is committed to knowing and understanding what’s true, and that involves managing cognitive biases because the latter distort our knowledge and understanding. 

Summary And Conclusion

  • Confirmation bias is a tendency to consider information that confirms what you already believe and that doesn’t challenge it.
  • Confirmation bias was first pointed out in 1960 by Peter Wason. Numerous experimental studies in social psychology have confirmed the existence of confirmation bias.
  • Confirmation bias is also known as myside bias. 
  • The tendency to look at only the sources that confirm your point of view, that validate your preconception, or that doesn’t contradict your personal beliefs are all examples of confirmation bias.
  • To detect confirmation bias ask yourself the question, “What are the arguments against my claim?”  
  • To disarm confirmation bias, withhold judgment and look for evidence against the claim.

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