On Confirmation Bias and How to Avoid It
All cognitive biases are difficult to manage because they are, for the most part, unconscious. One of the most challenging of such biases is confirmation bias, also known as “cherry picking”.
This is the human tendency to cling to any fact or evidence that reaffirms our preferred worldview while overlooking or dismissing facts or evidence that contradict it. Politics and social media, indeed our entire civilization, are presently overrun by confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias has a least two very problematic outcomes. First, it’s impossible to discern truth when one habitually clings to some evidence and habitually rejects contrary evidence, both without sufficient justification other that it “feels good.” That approach isn’t practicing discernment, it’s engaging in mental masterbation.
Second, this inability to sufficiently discern truth is very polarizing. If rational people can agree on anything, it ought to be on truth, but confirmation bias hinders development of rational consensus around truth. Instead, cherry picking evidence to reaffirm a predetermined conclusion leads only to the emotional polarization that we see so frequently here on FB and other social media.
How can we better protect ourselves from succumbing to confirmation bias? One place to start is with the realization that in a highly irrational and polarized world “truth” probably lies somewhere in between. So, if you’re near one of the poles, odds are you’re far from truth.
Second, it’s important to realize that entire cultures, and not just individuals, fall for confirmation bias. So, being with the “majority” doesn’t mean you’re any more likely to be right. Mass delusion is a real and common thing. In fact, it’s the rule rather than the exception. Being with the majority increases the odds that you’re wrong, if anything.
And lastly, develop the habit of scrutinizing your strong negative emotions. When you have an adverse reaction to some “fact” or some news story and consequently are inclined to just dismiss it or reject it as “fake news”, or to hate on the person who communicated it, second-guess that conclusion and that emotion. Your hostility is strong evidence that your ego is simply trying to defend it’s worldview.
Counterintuitively, hostility isn’t evidence that the information you dislike is wrong but rather evidence that some part of you (maybe the more rational part?) secretly thinks it may be right, or partially right. Ponder that possibility with an open mind. Bring logic and reason to bear. Perhaps employ some of the objective shortcuts or Life Maxims that I’ve mentioned before, such as Occam’s Razor. They should reduce the odds of being deceived and even of deceiving oneself.