Diagnosing Confirmation Bias: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Do you have confirmation bias?  What should you do if you have it??  Let’s find out!

Definition

“Confirmation bias”, which Wikipedia has affectionately nicknamed myside bias, is the tendency to reinforce our own beliefs through selective memory.  Memory tends to put disproportionate weight on facts and opinions that support our existing beliefs, and de-emphasize or outright forget those that don’t.

Symptoms

Signs that you may have confirmation bias: you…

…like to think critically about things

…follow people, publications, and/or causes that regularly cause you to feel righteous indignation

…are human

Causes

Yes, sad to say – the #1 cause of confirmation bias is being human!  If you are human, you have a chronic case of confirmation bias.

Risk Factors

The less you can be human, the more likely you will be to stay free of confirmation bias!

Another exacerbating factor is anecdotal evidence.  We are super inclined to place more big trust in the stories that our mom or brother or friend or nibling (the new PC term for niece or nephew…say what you will, I love it – how could you not love a word like “nibling”?) share with us than we are in anything else besides our own direct experience.  That includes quantitative, empirical (“hard”) evidence.  So, for example, if Aunt Emma tells us that she sees far more cases in the E.R. on full-moon nights than at any other time during the month, we are probably going to believe her no matter how many E.R. reports we see showing patient intake correlated to nothing except major holidays, especially if that’s what we already thought in the first place.

Complications

Possible complications arising from persistent confirmation bias include (but are not limited to), from least to most severe:

feelings of alienation; righteous indignation; being a **** on the internet; emotional distancing from people you love who hold opinions that are different than yours; bar fights; not speaking to friends/family/strangers (or not being spoken to by them).

Treatments

There is, tragically, no cure for confirmation bias.  The Skeptic’s Dictionary is fairly gloomy about your prospects: “Individuals have to continually remind themselves of this tendency and actively seek out data contrary to their beliefs.  Since this is unnatural, it appears that the ordinary person is doomed to bias.”  DOOMED, even!

With active treatments, however, you can keep it from wrecking your life.  Try these strategies:

Coping and Support

Look to your left; now look to your right.  Studies show that 100% of the people you just looked at also suffer from confirmation bias.  Head to your favorite local pub with one or both of them, find something you disagree on, talk about it, and end the conversation with a toast and a willingness to disagree.

— Posted on 25 June 2015 at 6:13pm by

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