No doubt about it… our minds are very powerful. So much so, that it does things without us even being aware of it. Ooooooh…scary!
If you think about how much information we are bombarded with every moment of the day, there’s no question that, unknown to us, our minds subconsciously filter out certain information. It has to.
We are hit with information from social media, other people, our own past, television and the great big world around us in general. So, our minds need to have ways of dealing with all that data. Some ways are with mental shortcuts, simplified maps and a sneaky little thing called cognitive bias. But they can sometimes be harmful, not helpful, to us.
In Your World…
Let’s consider something specific like driving your car.
As you are driving to work there is so much going on around you and so many things you see and hear, but actually don’t register. Every building you drive by, all the people you see in other cars, the sounds of other cars going by, flags in front of buildings waving, the steering wheel in your hand moving as you turn… you see and hear them, but don’t REALLY see and hear them.
What we do focus on, which is necessary for driving, are stop lights, road signs, other cars in the lanes in front and to the sides of our car, turn signals, the sound of a horn that warns you, a siren that gets you safely out of the way of an emergency vehicle and countless others. If you weren’t able to focus on certain things and filter out others you would be overwhelmed by everything else.
Let’s also add how your brain automatically allows you to do repeated or learned tasks without thinking about them.
Can you imagine the chaos if your conscious mind had to deal with EVERYTHING around us? For even the smallest action in driving – changing lanes – here’s what we would be thinking… “ OK, I want to get into the left lane. I have to look to the left. Now, I need to move my hand from this steering wheel to the turn signal that is located on the left side, then press it down to light up the signal to indicate me changing lanes. Next, I need to get my hand back to to turn this steering wheel to the left, but not too much! I also have to time all this so I don’t take too long, or the guy behind me won’t let me in and I may get into an accident.”
This may be simplifying it, but you get the idea.
Our brains use subconscious filters and mental shortcuts to prevent overwhelm. Some things, like changing lanes while driving, come automatically and quickly, with little or no thought. Sometimes we’ll even get all the way to work and wonder how the heck we even got there because our minds were on something else entirely!
So, let’s move to confirmation bias. Wikipedia had what I thought was the best definition. It says confirmation bias is “the tendency for us to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.”
In other words…we unconsciously look for information that supports what we already believe and filter out info that doesn’t – instead of seeing all the information objectively.
Yep…you do it.
And is it a flaw?
It’s a form of self-deception and you don’t even know you’re doing it!
But don’t worry…you are still a smart and logical person. It’s just another testament to being human.
Two sides of one…
No cognitive bias is as apparent as in people supporting vs. bashing a U.S. President. One person, Tom, may hate the President, so every time an article on social media brings to light a shortcoming of the President, Tom posts it on Facebook and says, “Yet, another reason President (insert any President’s name here) is unfit for office.” Although, in this day and age the comment would be a lot more angry and vulgar!
On this side, the information that supports Tom’s negative view of the President is called to attention and other facts and data are filtered out. He doesn’t even think about it.
Let’s look at this same situation, but from Sue’s point of view, who really likes the President. When Sue finds news supporting her view that the President is a good fit for the office, she posts things like “The President upholds our freedom with his support of concealed carry!”
Opposite of Tom’s confirmed view, Sue’s positive view of the President is confirmed by the stories she notices…because she is looking for evidence to support her view. Her and Tom see the same stories, but take only what is useful and that supports each.
This just proves that if you think one way, you’ll find evidence to support it and if you choose the opposite of that view…you’ll also find evidence to support it! Confirmation bias works both ways.
An example in everyday life…
Joe is meeting his girlfriend, Jenny, at a coffee shop and it hasn’t been going very well between them for awhile. In the past they have had many good times and some rough moments too.
Joe comes to the coffee shop in a non-excited mood and has the preconceived notion that Jenny will never live up to his thought of how she SHOULD be or that things can’t change between them. So, everything Jenny says and does (or doesn’t say and do) is subconsciously being filtered…. cognitive bias.
Unknowingly, Joe’s mind only cherry-picks the things that confirm his view… that she’s not exciting, not thin like the girls he’s normally physically attracted to, doesn’t make as much money as him and that she doesn’t pay attention to him.
At the coffee shop Joe noticed only her flaws, like the one time Jenny got distracted where he said, “See…you don’t pay attention to me!” But he filtered out the couple arguing close-by, which was really what distracted Jenny. And when she tried to explain, he wouldn’t even listen to her because it didn’t support his view.
Joe also got frustrated at Jenny because she didn’t understand something he said. However, Joe didn’t think about how she doesn’t have all the details that he has in his head, so could not possibly understand.
In reality, Jenny is smart, good looking, makes good conversation and has interesting hobbies. She is funny, witty, listens really well to others’ problems when they need to talk, and in general does a lot for Joe.
Did Joe consider any of those positive things that Jenny did or said? Nope.
Joe is so focused on his view that Jenny isn’t the best woman for him, that all of her positive qualities get filtered out of his mind, supporting his previous view of her and their relationship.
That is confirmation bias.
But what if Joe WAS aware he had confirmation bias about Jenny and their relationship?
What if Joe went to the coffee shop and instead of looking for Jenny’s negatives, he consciously made it his focus to look for Jenny’s positive qualities and things that support how she actually might be good for him?
Joe then might notice things like the way Jenny was being social, occasionally talking with strangers next to them and making them laugh. Joe might also notice she had some really good advice on something difficult he had been going through at work. Plus, after the coffee date, Jenny gave Joe some limes because she bought too many and remembered how he can only drink water with lime squeezed into it.
With this new point of view, Joe focuses on her good actions and qualities instead of them being filtered out with confirmation bias.
That could change the entire day…and maybe their entire relationship!
Being aware that we have confirmation bias is the first step in correcting it.
Even when we are shown evidence contradictory to one of our biased views, we still may frame it in a way that reinforces our current view. Once we know that, maybe we can work to really consider the whole picture and ALL the evidence in a situation.
So, how might we combat confirmation bias?
- What if when we go into a situation we become aware of possible confirmation bias and actually question our thoughts or views before we make decisions on them?
- We could also search for evidence that supports the exact opposite of our view to make sure we aren’t filtering out objective information. You can think of it as being the Devil’s Advocate. But be aware of taking that to the extreme…don’t ONLY be the Devil’s Advocate to someone – that can be totally unsupportive.
- Ask yourself “If proof of the opposite view was brought to my attention, would I still feel the same way or have the same view after that?”
- Ask more and better questions about things and don’t jump to conclusions quickly.
Could overcoming cognitive bias improve your life or positively change your experience of a situation?