How do we make decisions? Often, we are swayed by biases like the confirmation bias, anchoring biases, and other biases. These widespread tendencies influence our reasoning for the better or worse, but the best way to make decisions is to do so with the awareness of these biases.
What is the Confirmation Bias?
The confirmation bias leads us to search for evidence that supports our current beliefs and oppose information that goes against our current beliefs. Even when facts are presented to us, our brain is likely to dismiss the ones that challenge what we already “know” about the world.
Who Discovered Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias was “discovered” in 1960 by a psychologist named Peter Wason. He confirmed his theory with a simple experiment. He gave participants a set of three numbers and asked them to figure out the “rule” for the three numbers. The example he gave was “2-4-6.”
The rule behind his set of three numbers is that they had to be chosen in ascending order. 3-6-9, 45-89-100, and 1-2,9 would have all been acceptable answers. But more than half of the students couldn’t figure out the rule.
Wason looked at the triples that the participants chose to test their theory. Some believed that the set of three numbers all had to be even, like 6-8-10 or 80-90-100. They tested sets of triplets with only even numbers to confirm their belief.
What they didn’t test were triplets that would go against their beliefs. They only sought out information that would confirm what they already believed to be true.
Studies on Confirmation Bias
Don’t believe me? Here’s another study that shows how confirmation bias can shield our ability to believe information that goes against our beliefs.
In 1979, researchers at Stanford gathered a group of participants who had specific opinions on capital punishment. One group believed that capital punishment was a good thing. The other group opposed capital punishment.
The researchers made up two studies that provided statistics on capital punishment. When I say “made up,” I mean made up. The statistics were completely fake. They were designed to be equally compelling. One study supported the idea that capital punishment was beneficial to society and lowered crime rates. The other study supported the opposite claim.
Both studies were presented to the participants. Can you guess what happened next?
The students in favor of capital punishment were more likely to say that the study confirming their beliefs was credible. The students against capital punishment were more likely to say that the same study was not to be believed and possibly “fake.” (Or dare I say, “fake news?”)
What surprised researchers even more is that participants were more likely to feel more adamant about their views after reading both studies. The participants who were originally in favor of capital punishment were more likely to feel stronger about their opinions. The participants who were originally against capital punishment were more likely to feel stronger about its drawbacks.
May I remind you that the studies presented to both sides were completely made up?
How Confirmation Bias Works
Confirmation bias can have harmful effects, but it also has some benefits. Let me explain.
Psychologists have been able to explain where we get confirmation bias. Our brains have a lot of information to process, especially nowadays. We just don’t have time to view everything that we have seen as if we’re seeing it and judging it for the first time. So we use “shortcuts” called heuristics to help us make decisions quickly.
Quick decisions have many benefits. If we see a big, furry animal in the distance, our minds are likely to say, “BEAR!” and tell our feet to move in the other direction. Brains that took in every detail of every hair on the bear’s back and asked ourselves whether or not a bear was dangerous might take up a lot of time - and in that time, we might get eaten by a bear.
So our minds help move things along with biases and shortcuts. Confirmation bias is far from the only bias that helps us make quick decisions. The Self-Serving bias tells us to give ourselves credit for good things that happen to us. The Anchoring bias gives us an “anchor” to compare information to. The Optimism Bias tells us that good things are likely to happen to us, even more so than they are likely to happen to others.
Confirmation Bias and Cognitive Dissonance
Once we have formed a belief, it’s also hard to switch gears. Holding two or more opposing beliefs is very uncomfortable for the mind. It puts us in a state of cognitive dissonance. Our brains don’t like discomfort. Brains actively try to avoid any sort of discomfort or pain. So when they are faced with two opposing ideas, they are more likely to look to and confirm the one that they already believe in. They may reject the opposing ideas by claiming that it’s fake news or that it’s not as strong of an argument.
Can Confirmation Bias Be Good?
Cognitive biases aren’t inherently bad. They are a natural part of how the brain works and makes decisions. But confirmation bias can have a serious effect on the way we come to a decision about issues and limit our ability to solve problems.
Examples of Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias shows up in many areas of our lives, including:
- Sharing media
- Fake outrage
- Courtroom verdicts
- Echo chambers
- Believing conspiracy theories
- Workplace beliefs
Confirmation Bias and Sharing Media
I want to tell you a story about a person named John. John is a guy who is very adamant about gun rights. He wants everyone to have as many guns as they can and for them to be allowed in all public places.
Let’s say John is scrolling through Facebook. He sees that his aunt shares a story about a “good guy with a gun” preventing a mass shooting somewhere in the country. Without clicking the link, John shares the story. Below his aunt’s shared news story is a news story about Australia’s success with excessive gun control measures after
What do you think John is likely to do? Share that story with his friends and followers? Take a deep look at the article and think about how it could keep Americans safe? Or simply scroll on by, maybe even refuting the article?
The confirmation bias supports the idea that John is likely to just scroll on by. We see this phenomenon occurring every day on our social media platforms and in the news. Maybe you even have an argument with a colleague or coworker about a hot political issue. You try and use facts to get across to them that your point of view is valid - but they just won’t hear it.
The confirmation bias does not discriminate. It affects people who love guns and people who hate them. People who believe that Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. It affects all of us. And it affects you too.
Confirmation bias and Fake Outrage
Confirmation bias can put serious limits on our ability to think. But in an age where we have to process and make decisions on information faster than ever, it’s extremely important to be aware of confirmation bias and how we form opinions on political and social issues. Spreading “fake news” isn’t just a problem that affects on side of the political spectrum or the other.
Take the story about the “gender-neutral Santa” that came out a few months ago. Headlines filled up social media platforms claiming that people were demanding a gender-neutral Santa. That a majority, or a third, of people wanted Santa to be gender-neutral or even a woman.
People commented on the piece, reinforcing the ideas that people were demanding too much political correctness and that things were getting out of control. This study reached the desks of the BBC and CBS.
The Real Story of "Gender-Neutral Santa"
Well, the facts behind the story don’t exactly match up with the outrage and assumptions that people gave it. In fact, no one asked or demanded for anything. A graphics company behind the “study” surveyed people in an online poll asking for ways to modernize Santa. Among the ways to modernize Santa, more people suggested that Santa could use Amazon Prime, wear sneakers, or use an iPhone. The survey was not a scientific one. It fed users answers (it suggested that Santa be gender-neutral, rather than allowing participants to make that suggestion themselves) and was generally not a survey met to reflect the entire population of the US and the UK.
Less than a third suggested that Santa should be gender-neutral or a woman. No one demanded anything. There was no evidence to suggest that a majority of people even wanted to change Santa. But people who already felt outraged by “PC culture” still took the biased study and ran with it.
This lapse of judgement and reading about the validity of the study is just one way that we allow our confirmation bias to confirm things we already know to be true. People who think that liberals are demanding extreme measures when it comes to gender rights and breaking with tradition were likely to let the headline confirm their concerns.
Confirmation Bias and Stereotypes
There are many hurtful stereotypes in the world about people from different countries or of different religions or races. The confirmation bias keeps those stereotypes alive.
Let’s say you hold onto the belief that law enforcement officers are evil or racist. You are more likely to seek out, pay attention to, or share stories of law enforcement officers who murdered minorities without justification. Or, maybe you hold onto a different opinion - you believe that not all cops are bad or that the people who have been mistreated by the police deserved what they got. You might brush off the stories that people share about cops killing unarmed minorities or believe that they are isolated incidents. You might read more into stories of people who were pulled over and had pleasant interactions with the police. Or, you might turn up the volume on stories of police doing good for the community and cutting down on crime.
This probably sounds like someone you know or someone on your Facebook friends list. Anytime someone clings onto a stereotype, they are letting the confirmation bias lead them astray.
Confirmation Bias Example in Courtrooms
The confirmation bias can have serious effects outside of the digital world. Have you ever wondered why selecting a jury is such a long process? The judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys are all trying to eliminate cases of confirmation bias. They want a jury that can make a fair and impartial decision about whether or not the person committed a crime.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Look at the OJ Simpson trial. I could talk all day about the different biases that led to the “not guilty” verdict. But one is the confirmation bias. Some jurors walked into the courtroom with the belief that OJ Simpson did or did not commit the crime. They had a lot of information to take in during the trial - it lasted for months. But the confirmation bias made the information that confirmed the jurors’ beliefs stick out most in their mind.
Confirmation Bias and Echo Chambers
Have you ever heard of an echo chamber before? It’s a term used to describe spaces where people only encounter views and beliefs that mirror your own. You only hear “echoes” of the same ideas over and over again.
Echo chambers exist online and offline. Maybe you only see news on your social media feed that confirms your beliefs. Maybe you only go to events at college with people who you know have the same political or spiritual beliefs. You might block people who get into arguments with you on Facebook.The more you isolate yourself from people who think differently than you, the farther you go into the echo chamber.
Knowledge of confirmation biases or echo chambers is not new - and it has been recognized and manipulated for years. Facebook’s algorithm encourages it. After all, it wants us to stay on the social media platform and share content. If we see more content from websites that we trust or people on our friends list that share our same beliefs, we are more likely to stay on the site and engage with the content.
Confirmation Bias and Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories like the Flat Earth Theory show how easy it is to ignore facts and hold onto your own beliefs. People who believe these conspiracy theories look for any small piece of evidence that confirms what they believe. There could be dozens of explanations for the evidence they use, but conspiracy theorists don’t see it or won’t have it. They are so entrenched in their beliefs that basic science can no longer convince them.
Facebook groups and confirmation bias go hand in hand. Members in Flat Earther or other conspiracy theorists Facebook groups share articles, photos, and videos that continue to confirm their beliefs. The more time people spend in these groups, the deeper their beliefs become. They pay attention only to the “facts” in these groups rather than seeing the larger picture.
Confirmation Bias in The Workplace
Be on the lookout for confirmation bias at work. It can save you time and money to simply look at the facts in front of you, even if they disprove what you currently think about a project.
Let’s say you work in advertising. You believe that the target audience for your group project is moms who stay at home and don’t have a college degree. When your team brings you research on your competitors and the current market, however, the numbers show that your target audience aren’t making the purchasing decisions for their household.
Confirmation bias may stray your thinking here. Rather than going back to the drawing board and creating a message that tailors to your new target audience, you stick with your original beliefs about who is buying your product. You simply look for other research that supports what you believe about the market.
It’s easy to see how the confirmation bias can skew your direction on a project and lead you astray.
Warren Buffett and Confirmation Bias
If you’re one of the richest men in the world, it can be easy to fall into the confirmation bias. After all, your fortune can confirm that you’ve made great decisions in business and finance. But that’s not a trap that Warren Buffett wants to fall into. Investors can easily fall into the confirmation bias - they put all of their money into one company and ignore any signs that it might perform poorly. When an investor is lead by the confirmation bias, they can stick with their investments for way too long.
So Warren Buffett takes specific steps to fight the confirmation bias. He invites vocal critics of his investment strategy to meetings. He sits down and talks with people who are his direct competitors. This way, he can challenge his current beliefs about his strategy and possibly look for a new, better way to invest.
Confirmation Bias in Relationships
We all have that one friend who has a habit of dating the wrong people. Often, this is caused by low self-esteem. They believe that they are not good enough to date someone who is kind or wants to treat them like royalty. When someone does treat them well, they get suspicious and run away. It seems like that friend tends to seek out the worst possible partners they can find, only to confirm their beliefs that they’re not worthy of a healthy, loving relationship.
This can be frustrating for the friend’s loved ones. Maybe it’s time to talk to that friend about the confirmation bias and how it may affect who they choose to date or spend their time with.
Confirmation Bias and Communication
One of the most powerful slogans to come out of the #MeToo movement is “Believe Women.” This slogan is necessary due to the confirmation bias. When women tell their stories of sexual harassment or misconduct, they often feel that the men in their lives are not listening to them. They are brushed off, or the men who hear the stories downplay the validity of the story. This is confirmation bias at work. It’s not easy for some men to hear that their peers, an idol, or someone who looks just like them is capable of doing harmful or evil things. It’s not easy for some men to hear that they are not listening or that they are not supporting women. So they simply don’t listen to the evidence that supports this contradicting beliefs.
Confirmation Bias and Trustworthiness
Confirmation bias is the basis of many studies, especially as we are bombarded with more information and “fake news.” In one study, researchers looked at how trustworthy people thought a news source was. It’s no surprise that people who lean to the left are more likely to consider news sources like Vox or the New York Times a trustworthy source, and rate Fox News as a less trustworthy source. People who lean to the right are more likely to feel the opposite way.
In one study, researchers gave participants content from these websites. Some people saw the news source, and others were only given the text from the website to read. People who leaned to the left were more likely to rank the content from Fox News as more trustworthy when they didn’t know it was coming from Fox News. People who leaned to the right were more likely to rank the content from The New York Times as trustworthy when they didn’t know it was coming from The New York Times. Simply seeing the name of a website can easily skew our interpretation of information, no matter who you are.
The research also revealed some input about extreme opinions and bias. People who leaned far to the right or to the left were more likely to have biases against news sites. This includes people who consider themselves “very liberal” or “very conservative.”
How Confirmation Bias Affects Politics
This isn't new information to many - just see what a Reddit user had to say about confirmation bias in modern politics:
"Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias are closely related phenomenon that show that people actively seek out information and justifications to support their own opinions and actively dismiss information to the contrary. My personal view is that this is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, perpetuators of our politically partisan climate today."
How Can You Minimize Confirmation Bias
Heuristics and biases can help us make decisions quickly. We don’t have to spend an egregious amount of time processing the news and information that we see on social media. And while these shortcuts can be harmless, they can seriously skew our opinions.
Be aware of how you view information and headlines as they come in. Do you read the full article? Do you read it with an open mind? How likely are you to dismiss information because it goes against what you know? How likely are you to fact-check or seek out opposing information that could expand your perspective?
Keep these questions in mind and continue to challenge your biases.
Confirmation Bias Quiz
Did you learn something new about confirmation bias? Prove it! I have a quick quiz to test what you’ve learned in this video.
True or False: The confirmation bias leads people to reject, refute, or ignore information that confirms their current beliefs.
False! It’s likely to reject, refute, or completely ignore information that opposes current beliefs.
_______ is a discomfort that we feel when faced with opposing thoughts or beliefs.
Cognitive dissonance! It’s one idea that supports confirmation bias.
What are the “shortcuts” our brain uses to make quick decisions?