Confirmation bias. Is it just wishful thinking?
What would you think if a friend stopped returning your calls? Would you think they were ignoring you? Would you think it was something you said, maybe something you did? Could it just be your own confirmation bias coming into play?
Are you suffering from confirmation bias? What is it anyway?
Have you ever wondered how your beliefs and opinions are formed and where they come from? You might say your thought processes are based on entirely rational, logical and impartial convictions, right?
If you’ve ever been in a situation where your friend hasn’t returned your calls, and you have jumped to conclusions, chances are you have come up against your own confirmation bias.
Usually, confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. The trouble is, these biases are often based on favouring information that confirms your previously existing beliefs. It means that when people would like a certain idea to be true, they end up believing it is true. Some might call it wishful thinking.
However, the truth in the matter is that these errors in judgement to cause the individual to stop gathering information. This is because they believe they have already gathered sufficient evidence which confirms their views.
Confirmation bias: In action
You may have heard of a study from the 1960s called Wason’s rule discovery task. It was carried out by cognitive psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason. According to him, we have a natural tendency to look for and focus on the information that confirms our beliefs.
He performed a study during an election season to see if confirmation bias could influence the decisions we make. It turned out that during elections, people have a tendency to seek information that portrays their preferred candidates in a positive light. Similarly, they will seek negative information about the opposing candidate.
As a result, people didn’t perceive information objectively and focused only on its parts that support their existing political beliefs, according to Wason’s research. Thus, the information these people missed might have otherwise affected their decision on which candidate to vote for.
Three signs you are suffering from confirmation bias
Some say confirmation bias is merely thinking “with guts” as opposed to “with brains”. But being aware of your own biases can help you to mitigate them. Here are a few signs you might be a sufferer:
Ignoring or rejecting information
When we have a formed view, we tend to embrace it, which causes us to reject reasons to cast doubt on that view. This is what confirmation bias is about – it prevents us from seeing facts objectively. Instead, we focus only on those bits of information that confirm our beliefs simply because this makes us feel satisfied.
If you’ve found yourself looking back and thinking about how you might have handled a situation differently, chances are you’ve been involved in confirmation bias.
Bouts of anxiousness
Anxious individuals tend to view the world as dangerous. At the same time, a person with low self-esteem is highly sensitive to being ignored by other people, and they constantly monitor for signs that people might not like them.
Confirmation bias is rife in those who suffer from high anxiety. If you find yourself worrying that someone is annoyed with you, and you are biased toward all the negative information about how that person acts toward you. That is your confirmation bias.
Of course, the overarching problem with wishful thinking is that it is a form of self-deception. A bit like false optimism. Have you ever told yourself that chocolate isn’t fattening, or you’ll go on a diet from tomorrow? These are little white lies, or “self-deceptions” that confirmation bias commonly plays out to us.
Some psychologists say self-deception can be rather like self-medicating. For example, for dealing with certain illnesses. However, this can only be argued to a point. For serious illnesses, it can provide a more positive state of mind, and may actually be beneficial to cancer sufferers, but not diabetes or ulcers. There is evidence to suggest believing you will recover help reduce the level of stress hormones, giving the immune system and modern medicine a better chance to do their work.
The problem with self-medicating is that it can also become like a drug. The main danger is that it can numb you from harsh reality. It can even make people turn a blind eye to important matters when they should be gathering evidence for the facts.
How can you avoid confirmation bias?
There is not a lot you can do! People are prone to believe what they want to believe. However, it can help to rationalise your thoughts so that seeking to confirm our beliefs comes less naturally through confirmation bias.
While it may feel strong and counter-intuitive to look for evidence that contradicts our beliefs, try and remember that confirmation bias impacts how we gather information. It can also influence how we interpret and recall information.
If you find yourself in a position where you look for instances to prove that you are wrong, this is perhaps a true definition of self-confidence. In other words, it is the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that please your ego.