Avoiding Confirmation Bias (Or Not)

confirmation bias

You’ve no doubt seen it more times than you can count: a friend or relative shares something on social media that is manifestly erroneous, to the point of being self-parody. Yet it’s something that this person, and many others, passionately and unquestioningly believe to be accurate and valid. They have passed it on because they saw someone else pass it on, and it resonated with their beliefs, so they shared it without bothering to do one second of research about it. They, in short, have exhibited blatant confirmation bias — which, as the name suggests, is a bias toward confirming the validity of your biases.

Actually confirmation bias consists of three biases in one. First there’s selection bias, which causes you to focus only (or mostly) on information and narratives that support your beliefs. If you believe, for instance, that undocumented (“illegal”) immigrants pose a threat to your safety, then you might zero in on news stories about the instances of such individuals committing crimes — and ignore (or deny) statistics showing that they actually commit fewer crimes than U.S. citizens.

Then there’s interpretation bias. Not only do you selectively seek out facts, you selectively interpret the facts you find. Continuing with the anti-immigrant example, you’d attribute the criminal behavior of the individuals in question to their being undocumented immigrants, rather than considering other factors that are probably much more important.  If the criminal is a murderer, for instance, it would be much more logical (if also absurd) to focus on the fact that he is male, since males commit by far the greater share of violent crimes, and thus gender is certainly a much more significant factor than immigration status.

Finally there’s memory bias, which prompts you to be selective and even creative in what you remember, for the sake of supporting your beliefs. Thus, if you’re an anti-immigration person, you would recall all the cases in which immigrants commit crimes, but not have such strong remembrance about the instances when American citizens commit the same crimes. Furthermore, you might even remember those select incidents rather differently from how they actually occurred. If you hear on the news that an undocumented immigrant was arrested in connection with indecent behavior with a minor, you might incorrectly remember — and tell others — that he was actually wanted for murder, and was arrested at the airport and heavily armed. (This illustration is drawn from real life, by the way.)

We all are “guilty” of confirmation bias in some degree or other, at least occasionally. But is that necessarily a bad thing?  Should you be concerned about your own confirmation bias, and should you be interested in doing something to change it? Well, that depends on a number of factors. Ask yourself these questions as objectively as possible: How solid is the foundation on which the bias was formed? How constructive is the bias — does it have any destructive or counterproductive overtones? How strictly do you adhere to it — are you willing, at least occasionally, to venture outside the iron fortress of conviction?

The first question is perhaps the trickiest to answer. If you entertain certain beliefs, then you naturally are going to be convinced that those beliefs are on solid footing, and it’s going to be difficult to stand back and evaluate them objectively. But it’s a good idea to think back, and consider just how logical and well-informed the process was that led to your forming those convictions in the first place. Quite often, a good barometer is the length of time you spent in forming them — since it requires a certain amount of time to investigate, process and evaluate facts. (This is assuming that you have different convictions from those you were raised with; if you simply adopted the values of your parents without questioning them, then you may not be on a very solid factual footing at all.)

For example, if you were raised in a strict religious environment, but turned out to be atheist or non-religious, then it probably took you many years of examining the dogma your were brought up with, and learning and assimilating facts that contradicted it, before you reached the conclusion that you didn’t accept it. On the other hand, if you made such a transformation more spontaneously, then it probably was based on reaction rather than reflection.

A good illustration of the latter type of visceral and irrational flip is the case of a well-known young right-wing pundit who was formerly a left-wing activist. She made the switch (in her words, she “became a conservative overnight”) because she got pissed at a handful of people who were harassing her online, whom she (wrongly) believed to be leftists. And you may know people who formerly were Democratic voters, but swiftly converted to Republican because they somehow became convinced that Republicans were more “pro-life”. Abrupt about-faces like these are not exactly on the most solid of logical and factual footing; consequently, they’re going to be accompanied by confirmation bias of the worst sort.

Then there’s the second matter. Is your bias a positive and constructive one? Does it support the greatest good for the greatest number — or does it merely serve your own narrow self-interests at the expense of other people? What are the ultimate purposes of the ideology you’re dedicated to? Suppose, for example, that you’re a Libertarian; the one premise that you’re probably devoted to above all is “limited government”. Just about everyone can agree that this is a worthy aim, even if we don’t all approve of the specific ways in which Libertarians apply it.

But when it comes to those anti-immigration folks, it’s hard to see anything positive in their bias if you know the facts; because their talking points are based on misconceptions and misinformation. (“They’re bringing crime, they’re taking our jobs, they cost us money.”) Anti-immigration bias isn’t just occasionally misguided like Libertarianism; it’s rooted entirely in bigotry and hate. And when your ideology is destructive, it’s going to be supported by destructive confirmation bias.

The third point is where people make the most obvious and deliberate effort to maintain their confirmation bias. Many people don’t just live in a bubble; they instantaneously shoot down any information or idea that threatens to penetrate that bubble, and make a concentrated effort to avoid the possibility that any such extraneous concepts even cross their radar. Why would they feel the need to do this if they are so convinced that their convictions are so impenetrable? In old-fashioned terms, they’re just plain narrow-minded.

For those of us who exhibit a healthier type of confirmation bias, it isn’t a matter of fearing ideas that contradict our values. It’s simply a matter of recognizing that life is short and time is limited; so the reading and viewing we do would be most wisely spent on material that we find to be of most value; and conversely, media sources that we have found to be unreliable or consistently misleading are generally not worth our time.

Still, it’s a good idea to do periodic reality checks to make certain that your sources are still reliable — sometimes a once-reliable source can become considerably less so. In other words, in order to prevent our confirmation bias from turning into just another narrow-minded bubble, we can occasionally temper it with what one might call challenge bias — a propensity to dig up reports that challenge what you are inclined to believe. After all, if you spend any time interacting with individuals having opposing viewpoints to yours, sooner or later they’re going to throw some claims at you that you may not have heard before. Shouldn’t you be prepared to shoot down those claims by virtue of already having explored hostile territory?

In my case, I definitely have a left-leaning bias. (Or so I’ve been told repeatedly by people who don’t like what I have to say.) But that’s not something that I started out to establish. It’s something that developed naturally after years of digging to get to the bottom of issues. But being a “liberal” (if that is that correct term) doesn’t automatically cause me to adopt a position that other “liberals” maintain. I examine each issue on its own merits. But like anyone else, I naturally rely on some sources of information more than others. Among them is Media Matters For America, which ferrets out “conservative misinformation”. But I don’t follow their reporting just because they are also left-leaning; there are many other sites that are more left-leaning, but since they are also less accurate and reliable, I generally don’t fool with them.

Media Matters, however, has a near-impeccable track record since its founding in 2004. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and doesn’t guarantee that its track record will continue to be outstanding in the future. It’s always a good idea to do an occasional quality check. And perhaps the best way to do that for a left-leaning outlet is to consult a right-leaning outlet. Even so, I have found a total of one occasion on which right-wing criticism of MMFA had a bit of validity to it. The rest of the time, it’s just a matter of calling it a “left-wing smear site” or some such, without substantiation.

In general, I’d recommend doing at least 5 percent of your reading outside your own “belief bubble”, or even more depending on your purposes. (I have to do quite a bit of it to research these articles.) After the 2000 “election”, I spent several months reading the National Review every day; I was really curious about what kind of values could support someone like George W. Bush, so I wanted to peer more deeply into the right-wing mindset. And what better place to do it than on the pages of the de facto ship’s log of modern “conservatism”?

I presented myself as one of the faithful flock, making comments and interacting with the magazine’s editors. But it didn’t fool them for long, because I was asking questions and making observations that would not have come from any of its lockstep followers. Ultimately, I found the publication to be a jejune exercise that very well could have been written by junior high school students — and which essentially just recirculated rehashed versions of the same articles year after year. But I’d never have known that for certain if I hadn’t actually investigated for myself.

Be particularly cautious about the “outrage cycle” — the first few days after which a news story breaks that has the potential to be volatile. During this phase, not all the facts will be known, but many conclusions will be drawn, and many shaky narratives circulated. (For this reason, I generally wait at least a week before commenting on a high-profile event — I want to make sure that most of the dust has settled.) This is a time when it’s especially risky to rely on highly biased reporting. So I’d recommend that you read accounts by both left-leaning and right-leaning sources and see where they overlap. Perhaps even better would be to scour sources that are neutral, if such an animal even exists anymore. (A promising contender is The Bulwark  which was founded by moderate conservatives and seems to offer genuinely fair and balanced reporting and opinion, much of which easily could have been written by someone on a much more “liberal” site.)

It’s also a good idea to apply the same kind of balance to any kind of factual question, unrelated to current events, that you are attempting to settle. Say you want to research whether a vegetarian diet is healthier than a carnivorous diet. If you already are inclined to believe that it is, then you will be tempted to do a search like “vegetarianism is healthier”, which is only going to reinforce your bias rather than give you the complete facts. It’s important that you also do a search for “vegetarianism is not healthier” to get all the pros and cons. Or perhaps better yet, try “Is vegetarianism healthier?” If you really want to be thorough, you can even check rebuttals to rebuttals, and so on, until you get to the bottom of things.

That said, it’s also important to realize that search engines sometimes have their own confirmation bias — or bias, at least. This is not, as right-wingers so loudly insist, because the Silicon Valley elves deliberately stack the deck. It’s because the public itself skews the search results. Suppose you wanted to look up some information about vaccines. That’s become a rather controversial topic, simply because anti-vaxxers have made it controversial. They have waged a relentless, far-reaching disinformation campaign about vaccines that has saturated the search results. So you may have to spend more time searching for “vaccines are safe and effective” than for “vaccines are dangerous and worthless” just to get a truly balanced perspective.

The irony is that, with unprecedented access to information these days, it often seems like more of a struggle than ever to be well-informed. That’s because unlike in past eras, when we only had to breach the gulf of ignorance, we now have to fend off a constant bombardment of misinformation. Another irony is that in order to dispel the misinformation, you sometimes have to plunge into it. And you sometimes have to step outside the cozy circle of your convictions. But if your convictions are on solid ground to begin with, that will only make them stronger.

One comment

  1. I have often wished I could be more tolerant of other’s views without bias, but every time I turn on Fox News I must change the channel a few minutes later to get a grip on my sanity. The so-called journalists there seem to look perfectly snide as they say nasty and untrue things about Democrats. And though fact checking websites to do a good job of revealing their deceptions, Trump’s people of course, insist that the fact checkers are all anti-Trump liars?

    One thing I am proud of, is that, once when reading Facebook posts I noticed someone bring up the old meme that Trump said he ran for President as a Republican since, “Republicans are easier fool.” To me that sounded perfectly feasible because of what I had read and heard about Trump. And, I did not consider him above making a dumb statement like that. But instead, I consulted Snopes, FactCheck.org and Politifact, none of which could find any proof that Trump said any such thing? So, I was glad that I pointed out that falsehood to other commenters on FB while adding that, if we want to be truly objective, we should not swallow everything said about Trump based on assumptions either–even if they seem believable! The fact checkers also refute claims made about Trump’s character. So, if anyone say something that sounds too bizarre to be true, it usually is! However, I still feel I’m on the right track when I criticize Trump’s character, because I’m backed up by fact checkers who have refuted far more lies told by Trump (about Democrats).

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