The technical definition
The confirmation bias is the idea that our brains are hardwired to be attracted to information that generates the least amount of cognitive dissonance (or inconsistency) in what we already believe. This bias may lead us to seek out or attend only to information that affirms our fundamental beliefs, and it makes us prone to ignore, forget, or avoid information that does not fall into our existing intellectual schema.
Huh, what does that mean?
The confirmation bias is the idea that we see what we want to see. People tend to prefer information that confirms what they already know—whether or not the information is true. It’s human nature to want to feel like we’re competent creatures who have a solid grasp on the world around us; we don’t like the idea that our perceptions may not be aligned with reality because it is our grasp on reality that makes us feel safe and sane in an ever-changing world. Therefore, having this bias is not always a terrible thing; it allows us to collect information that assists us in building a case for our own reasoning, thus developing self-efficacy. However, more often than not, this bias gets us into trouble because it can distort our ability to make informed decisions.
Consider the scientific process for a moment. What would happen if scientists conducting an experiment accepted only the evidence that supported their hypotheses and rejected or dismissed the evidence that did not? If we do not become aware of this bias in our own lives and thinking processes, we are at risk for the same tragic errors.
A common example illustrating the confirmation bias is in the way we handle our political viewpoints. Those in support of a particular candidate tend to seek out information that agrees with that candidate and their viewpoints, and they will skip over information that does not (i.e., someone in support of a Democratic candidate will most likely not be found listening to Republican radio commentary as their primary news source).
Unfortunately, this bias has also woven its way into our homes and classrooms, sometimes having long-lasting effects on children. Take for example Ms. Martin, an 8th grade teacher, who was just told by her well-intending co-worker that she’d better “brace herself” for the upcoming school year, “because Jonah is always messing around and is sure to be a distraction to her class for the whole year!” Because of the information, do you think it is more or less likely that Ms. Martin will notice Jonah’s positive characteristics or his problematic behavior? Research has shown that the latter is much more likely if Ms. Martin cannot sift through her co-worker’s biases and wait to meet Jonah before she generates her own opinion.
Parents are also guilty of having this bias, particularly when using the words “always” or “never.” For example, “Julie never takes her dishes to the sink,” or “Joey is always on his phone.” When parents make these statements and adopt this framework, they may begin to notice only the moments when their children are confirming their beliefs; this robs them of the valuable opportunities to notice when their children are performing well — thereby further perpetuating their bias.
How do I use this in my life?
- Commit to becoming actively curious. Ask questions; don’t take sources at their word; do your own fact checking.
- Be willing to consider other points of view. Open yourself up to learning why others believe what they believe. It may not ultimately change your opinion about an issue, but the learning process can only help serve to deepen your understanding.
- Examine your own beliefs. It takes a significant amount of courage to investigate your own fundamental values when there is a genuine risk that you could discover that that you are wrong. Having courage is not always easy, but it’s important in the development of your character. If your fear is truly that intense about learning other viewpoints, it may be time to evaluate why you posses such an aversion to new ideas.
- Be cautious of statements including definitives like “always” and “never.” Know that in mind, there are typically many beautiful shades of gray, and we all have the capacity for significant change.
Nickerson, Raymond S. (1998). Confirmation Bias; A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises. Review of General Psychology (Educational Publishing Foundation) 2 (2): 175–220.