If I believe that the sky is light blue, I will remember only the day, and not the night.
On my flight back home this summer, I delved into ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’, a peculiar and cleverly written book by Rolf Dobelli. I enjoyed the refreshing critical thinking and open mindedness with which the different chapters were written, each focused on a different psychological theory. I stopped short at ‘Chapter 10: Confirmation Bias.’
Now, it’s a familiar enough term to those of us who studied Psychology or the scientific method in University.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for, remember and understand information that coincides neatly with our existing beliefs.
The Curious Case Of Jane
It has been observed and studied time and time again. In 1979, researchers at the University of Minnesota gave subjects a story to read – about a week in the life of Jane, an imaginary woman. In the story, Jane displayed both introverted and extroverted behaviors.
A few days later, the researchers asked half of them if Jane was suitable for a librarian position and the other half if Jane would do well in a real estate position. The subjects then only recalled introverted behaviors as evidence in the librarian group and extroverted behaviors in the real estate group, saying Jane was perfect for the job.
The most surprising element was that after the first question, when subjects from the librarian group were asked if Jane would make a good real estate agent, they said no, and the same behavior was observed with the real estate group.
After a few minutes of reflection, I realized how permeating this selective memory habit can be and how it can make us come to all the wrong conclusions. Here are a few to watch out for:
1. It can lead to negative thinking patterns
Be aware of the fact that when we put ourselves in the box of ‘failure’ or ‘success’, our thinking becomes kind of polarized. We’ve opened a door that only has evidence to support that ‘You are a failure’.
We don’t look around to see the other doors; like those nights in bed where you can’t stop recalling all the embarrassing things you’ve done since you were 9 and at the end, are convinced that you are the clumsiest person alive. You forget all those days you were elegant and charming, where people beamed at you as you walked by.
2. It can fuel your moods [& paranoia]
In 1978, Pennebaker and Skelton observed how hypochondriacs can fall prey to confirmation bias, actively looking for symptoms to math the clinical condition they think they are suffering from. The same applies to depressed persons or persons with neurotic states of mind.
It can make ‘angry’ angrier and ‘sad’ sadder, if you let it; like an inflating balloon. During an argument with your sweetheart, you’ll recall all the mistakes they ever made and how they did you wrong.
3. It can help harbor false theories
In 1987, Pyszczynski and Greenberg studied that it takes much more disconfirming evidence for people to reject a theory than it takes for them to confirm it. This poses another problem when we look at reconstructing our beliefs – If we are wrong, we’ll need mountains of information to believe we are wrong.
This bias persists as cultural stereotypes, religious radicalization and outright war. It lets people believe in things that aren’t quite true – like ‘The Secret’ thinking and astrology. You’re supporting a theory by finding evidence to match it. When you read a horoscope, vague as it is, you find little links in your day to match it – and it will take very little evidence for you to believe it.
What should you do?
That’s fairly simple – stay open. Don’t be so sure of your beliefs. Next time someone gives you an opposing opinion, don’t pick up your intellectual swords to fight. Seek out opposing opinions; don’t ignore them. Challenge your own beliefs and set out to disprove them. Stop for a moment and consider the opposition. What good is winning the argument if you’re never right?
You are wrong and I am right – despite the evidence, despite reason. But what if you’re wrong?