The Confirmation Bias: Why People Only See What They Want to See

The Confirmation Bias

 

The confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to search for, favor, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs. This bias is widely prevalent in many areas of life, and has a powerful influence on the way people make decisions and shape their beliefs.

In the following article, you will learn more about the confirmation bias, about why people experience it, and about how it relates to other cognitive biases. Then, you will see what you can do in order to reduce the influence of the confirmation bias, both in other people’s thought process as well as in your own.

 

What is the confirmation bias

The confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to search for, favor, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs. This cognitive bias promotes various problematic patterns of thinking, such as people’s tendency to ignore information that contradicts their beliefs.

There are four primary domains of cognition in which the confirmation bias affects people:

  • Biased search for information. This means that the confirmation bias causes people to search for information that confirms their preexisting beliefs, and to ignore information that contradicts them.
  • Biased favoring of information. This means that the confirmation bias causes people to give more weight to information that supports their beliefs, and less weight to information that contradicts them.
  • Biased interpretation of information. This means that the confirmation bias causes people to interpret information in a way that confirms their beliefs, even if the information could be interpreted in a way that contradicts them.
  • Biased recall of information. This means that the confirmation bias causes people to remember information that supports their beliefs and to forget information that contradicts them, or to incorrectly remember contradictory information as having supported their beliefs.

 

Examples of the confirmation bias

“When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!”

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

There are many examples of how the confirmation bias affects people in various domains:

  • The confirmation bias affects the way people view political information. For example, people generally prefer to spend more time looking at information which supports their political stance, while neglecting information that contradicts it.
  • The confirmation bias affects the way people conduct scientific research. For example, scientists often demonstrate a confirmation bias in the way they conduct research, when they selectively analyze data in a manner that allows them to confirm their preferred hypotheses.
  • The confirmation bias affects the way people assess their pseudoscientific beliefs. For example, people who believe in pseudoscientific theories tend to ignore information that disproves those theories.
  • The confirmation bias affects the way people decide how to invest. For example, investors rely more strongly on information which confirms their preexisting beliefs with regards to the value of certain stocks.
  • The confirmation bias affects the way people form clinical diagnoses. For example, doctors often search for new information in a selective manner that will allow them to confirm their initial diagnosis, while ignoring signs that this diagnosis could be wrong.

Overall, the confirmation bias can affect people in different ways, and in different areas of life. The varied examples that we saw above demonstrate how prevalent this bias is, and show that it can affect anyone, including people who we generally assume assess information in a purely rational manner.

 

Why we experience the confirmation bias

There are generally two primary cognitive mechanisms which are used in order to explain why people experience the confirmation bias:

  • Challenge avoidance- this signifies the fact that people don’t want to find out that they are wrong.
  • Reinforcement seeking- this signifies the fact that people want to find out that they are right.

Both of these factors are related to the same underlying principle, and specifically to people’s desire to minimize their cognitive dissonance, which is the psychological stress that people experience when they hold two or more contradictory beliefs simultaneously.

Challenge avoidance, for example, can help people avoid cognitive dissonance by prompting them to ignore information which contradicts their beliefs, and which would therefore increase the dissonance that they experience.

Reinforcement seeking, on the other hand, can help people reduce cognitive dissonance that they are experiencing or that they might experience, by prompting them to find support for their original stance, which could help them cope with any dissonance that arises when they later encounter contradictory information.

Moreover, in addition to challenge avoidance and reinforcement seeking, the confirmation bias can also occur due to flaws in the way we test our hypotheses.

Essentially, when people try to find an explanation for a certain phenomenon, they tend to focus on only one hypothesis at a time, and disregard any alternative hypotheses, even in cases where they’re not emotionally incentivized to verify their initial hypothesis.

This can cause people to simply try and prove that their initial hypothesis is true, instead of trying to actually check whether it’s true or not, which causes them to ignore the possibility that the information that they encounter could disprove this initial hypothesis, or support alternative hypotheses.

For example, a doctor who forms an initial diagnosis of a patient might then focus solely on trying to prove that this diagnosis is right, instead of trying to actively determine whether alternative diagnoses could make more sense.

This explains why people can experience an unmotivated confirmation bias in situations where they have no emotional reason to favor a specific hypothesis over others. This contrasts with a motivated confirmation bias, which occurs when the person displaying the bias is motivated by some emotional consideration.

In the case of the motivated confirmation bias, an additional reason why people experience the bias, from a cognitive perspective, is that the brain suppresses neural activity in areas associated with emotional regulation and emotionally-neutral reasoning, which causes people to process information based on how their emotions guide them to, rather than based on how their logic would guide them.

Overall, people tend to experience the confirmation bias primarily due to their desire to minimize their cognitive dissonance, which is the psychological stress that they experience when they accept information that contradicts their beliefs. Accordingly, the confirmation bias is motivated by people’s avoidance of information which proves that they are wrong, and by their seeking information which proves that they are right.

Furthermore, the imperfect way in which people test their hypotheses also contributes to the occurrence of the confirmation bias, by causing people to fixate on confirming a single possible hypothesis from the start, while ignoring the possibility that this hypothesis might be wrong.

 

The distinction between challenge avoidance and reinforcement seeking

When it comes to understanding the underlying causes of the confirmation bias, it’s beneficial to understand the difference between challenge avoidance and reinforcement seeking.

Though the two are strongly related, and though both behaviors revolve around the attempt to reduce the cognitive dissonance that a person experiences, challenge avoidance and reinforcement seeking are not inherently linked to each other, and they do not have to occur at the same time.

This means that if someone tries to avoid information which challenges their beliefs, they might also try to actively seek information that supports those beliefs, but that’s not necessarily the case.  Similarly, if a person tries to seek information that confirms their beliefs, they might not actively avoid information that contradicts those beliefs if they encounter it.

Furthermore, there is an important difference in how people respond, from a cognitive perspective, to challenging information compared to confirmatory information.

Specifically, exposure to information which supports a person’s beliefs simply affirms that person’s sense of correctness, and therefore has only a relatively minor positive impact in terms of reducing their cognitive dissonance. Conversely, exposure to information which challenges a person’s beliefs leads to a powerful emotional reaction, and therefore has a relatively large negative influence in terms of increasing cognitive dissonance.

Moreover, people react differently to these two types of information, since in order to mitigate the negative emotions and resolve the cognitive dissonance that occurs as a result of encountering contradictory information, individuals look for ways to discount this information, something that they do not have to do when encountering confirmatory information.

Overall, while reinforcement seeking and challenge avoidance are two related behaviors that stand at the core of the confirmation bias, they are distinct from one another, since each of them affects people’s thought process differently, and since they can occur independently from one another.

 

Related cognitive biases

Since the confirmation bias can influence people in a variety of ways, there are many cognitive biases that are categorized as subtypes of the confirmation bias.

For example, consider the backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to strengthen their support for their preexisting beliefs when they encounter evidence which shows that these beliefs are wrong.

This bias can, for example, cause people to increase their support for a political candidate after they encounter negative information about that candidate, or to strengthen their belief in a scientific misconception they encounter evidence which highlights the issues with that misconception.

The backfire effect occurs because when people argue against unwelcome information strongly enough, they end up with more arguments to support their original stance. As such, the backfire effect is essentially a subtype of the confirmation bias, since it represents one way in which people react to new information in a manner that confirms their preexisting beliefs.

Another example for a cognitive bias which is based on the confirmation bias is the halo effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to let their impression of someone in one area to influence their impression of that person in other areas.

This bias can, for example, cause people to assume that if someone is physically attractive, then they must also have an interesting personality, or it can cause them to give higher ratings to an essay if they believe that it was written by an attractive author.

The halo effect occurs because being exposed to a certain trait of an individual causes people to immediately form an initial impression of that person, which they then attempt to justify by interpreting that person’s other traits in a way that confirms the initial impression. As such, the halo effect is also considered to be a subtype of the confirmation bias, since it represents another way in which people interpret new information in a manner that confirms their preexisting beliefs.

Overall, the confirmation bias can affect people in many different ways, and accordingly, there are many cognitive biases which represent different subtypes of the confirmation bias. Essentially, every time a cognitive bias causes people to process information in a way which confirms their preexisting beliefs, it means that that bias is likely a subtype of the confirmation bias.

 

How to reduce the confirmation bias

So far we saw what the confirmation bias is, how it affects people, and why people experience it. Because of its notable influence and widespread prevalence, it’s important to also know how to mitigate this bias.

In the next two sections, you will first learn how you can reduce the confirmation bias that other people experience, before moving on to see how you can reduce the confirmation bias that you experience yourself.

 

How to mitigate the confirmation bias in other people

There are several methods that you can use in order to reduce the influence that the confirmation bias has on others.

These methods all revolve around trying to counteract the cognitive mechanisms that promote the confirmation bias in the first place. As such, these methods all entail trying to get people to overcome their initial tendency to reject contradictory information or to focus on confirmatory information, while also encouraging them to conduct a valid hypothesis-testing process.

Accordingly, some of the most notable techniques that you can use in order to reduce the confirmation bias include the following:

  • Encourage people to avoid forming a hypothesis too early. As we saw above, once people have a specific hypothesis in mind, they tend to try and confirm it, instead of trying to formulate and test other possible hypotheses. As such, you should encourage people to try and process as much information as possible before forming their initial hypothesis.
  • Ask people to think about various reasons for why their hypothesis might be wrong, or why alternative hypotheses might be right. This is an especially beneficial course of action if the other person already has a preexisting hypothesis. Essentially, asking people to think about possible issues with their existing hypothesis makes them more willing to internalize information which contradicts that hypothesis, and reduces the probability that they will reject contradictory information without proper consideration.
  • Encourage people to process new information in a conscious and unemotional manner. As we saw earlier, one of the main reasons why people experience the confirmation bias is their tendency to reject contradictory information and to favor confirmatory information due to emotional reasons, and specifically due to the desire to minimize the cognitive dissonance that they experience. Therefore, by encouraging people to be active participants in their reasoning process and to rely on conscious and emotionally-neutral processing rather than on emotional intuitions, you reduce the risk that they will suffer from the confirmation bias.

Different debiasing techniques will be more effective in different situations, and you can sometimes use more than one technique at a time in order to achieve the best outcome possible, in terms of reducing the confirmation bias.

Note that the techniques which are outlined above represent some of the most common techniques that you can use in order to debias people who experience the confirmation bias. However, there are many other general debiasing techniques that you can use to help people overcome their confirmation bias.

Similarly to the techniques that we saw above, most of these debiasing techniques revolve around encouraging people to undergo a proper reasoning process. Such techniques involve, for example, getting people to slow down their reasoning process, standardizing the decision-making process, and creating favorable conditions for optimal decision making.

The guide to debiasing explains more about these techniques, and about how they can be used to reduce both the confirmation bias as well as other cognitive biases that people experience.

 

How to mitigate the confirmation bias that you experience

The techniques that you would use in order to mitigate the confirmation bias in yourself are similar to those that you would use in order to mitigate it in others.

For example, you can avoid forming a hypothesis too early, or you can force yourself to come up with reasons why your initial hypothesis might be wrong, since doing these things can help reduce your confirmation bias.

In some ways, debiasing yourself using these techniques is easier than debiasing others, since other people will rarely be as open to your debiasing attempts as you yourself are. At the same time, however, debiasing yourself is also more difficult in some ways, since we often struggle to notice our own blind spots, and to objectively identify areas where we are affected by the confirmation bias.

As such, the first and most important step to overcoming your own confirmation bias is to be consciously aware of your reasoning process, and to constantly ask yourself whether you are distorting the way in which you process information, in an attempt to confirm your preexisting beliefs. Then, you can use the debiasing techniques that we saw above in order to reduce the influence that the confirmation bias has on you.

For example, if you find yourself immediately disregarding a news article whose headline contradicts your beliefs in some way, you could ask yourself why you did that, and whether you should read it instead of disregarding it immediately. You can even go further than that, and decide that for each article that you read which supports your point of view, you will read one that contradicts it.

Beyond helping you overcome the confirmation bias, doing this has the important added benefit of helping you understand the opposing point of view better. This is crucial to your ability to defend your own stance and to communicate about the topic with others, and it’s something that very few people bother to do.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to search for, favor, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs.
  • The confirmation bias affects people’s thinking in every area of life. For example, it can cause people to disregard negative information about a political candidate that they support, or to only pay attention to news articles that support their pseudoscientific beliefs.
  • People display the confirmation bias because they want to minimize any cognitive dissonance that they might experience by having to deal with contradictory information, and because they tend to fixate on only one hypothesis at a time.
  • To mitigate the influence of the confirmation bias, you can encourage people to avoid forming a hypothesis too early, ask people to come up with possible reasons why their initial hypothesis might be wrong or why alternative hypotheses might be right, and prompt people to process new information that they encounter in a conscious manner.
  • You can also use general debiasing techniques in order to reduce the influence of the confirmation bias. These techniques include, among others, encouraging people to slow down the reasoning process, standardizing the way in which people make decisions, and creating conditions which facilitate an optimal reasoning process.

 

If you found this article interesting and you want to learn more about the topic, take a look at a book called “Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts“, which shows how the confirmation bias, together with related cognitive biases, influences people’s thought process.