The Confirmation Bias Is No Joke

Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for or interpret information in a way that confirms preexisting beliefs or assumptions. A classic joke supporting the confirmation bias goes like this:

A stranger visits a small town and notices that everyone is wearing garlic around their necks. He asks the town sheriff about the strange custom and learns it’s to keep the elephants away. “Does it work?” he asks. The response: “You don’t see any elephants around here, do you?”

The confirmation bias not only means we don’t look for information which might disprove our bias but we also ignore any evidence that might contradict it.

The term confirmation bias was coined by English psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason. His 2-4-6 experiment demonstrates “our natural tendency to confirm rather than disprove our own ideas.” In the experiment, subjects were told they would be given a sequence of three numbers and asked to figure out what the rule was that governed their sequence. To help the process, subjects were allowed to ask the experimenter whether two other sequences met the rule. Try it yourself:

The initial series is 2-4-6. You might guess that the rule is increasing numbers by two. If so, you would ask the experimenter if 8-10-12 also fits the rule. It does. This confirms your initial guess so you ask whether 20-22-24 fits the rule. It also does. Twice confirmed, you announce that the rule is even numbers, increasing by twos.

That’s incorrect. The rule is any increasing numbers.

The problem is that you didn’t challenge your own theory but only asked questions that would confirm it. You could have asked about 9-11-13 (which would have disproved even numbers) or about 10-11-12 (which would have disproved increasing by twos). In the experiment, only one in five people was able to guess the correct rule. The rest had confirmation bias.

The current discussion of echo chambers in social media is an example of confirmation bias in action. Because we tend to follow people who share our beliefs, we only see information that supports our point of view. If contradictory evidence appears in our feed, we discount it or ignore it completely. We believe what we see and see what we believe.

We can combat fake news through rigorous fact-checking and use of the baloney detection kit but overcoming a confirmation bias is even more difficult. When I have a strong point of view, I try to be open-minded by asking myself what would cause me to change my opinion and then diligently look for that evidence. I also intentionally add people to my social feeds with differing points of views so that I’m exposed to conflicting opinions. Being diligent helps but can’t completely overcome the natural human tendency to believe we’re right – despite the evidence to the contrary.

The confirmation bias is no joke.

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5 Responses to The Confirmation Bias Is No Joke

  1. Gaurav Jaiswal December 10, 2018 at 3:47 am #

    There’s so much confirmation bias these days all around us, specially in the news that we consume, very challenging go to maintain an objective perspective btw all this.

    Great read as always Jonathan!


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