Have you ever noticed that we often pay more attention to things that agree with our beliefs and ignore those that don’t?
That’s because our brains are wired to seek out information that supports our pre-existing beliefs and ignore anything that contradicts them.
This tendency is known as “confirmation bias” in psychology — one of the most common cognitive biases that acts as a hidden force that guides our thoughts and actions, often without us knowing it.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how confirmation bias works, how it affects our lives, and how we can learn to manage it.
What is Confirmation Bias?
Confirmation bias is a psychological phenomenon where we tend to favor information that confirms our existing beliefs and ignore or downplay information that contradicts them. According to its classic definition, it’s a tendency to seek or interpret evidence in ways that support our existing beliefs (Nickerson, 1998).
In other words, it’s easy for us to see things that fit in with what we already think and filter out everything else that doesn’t.
The concept of confirmation bias isn’t new. In fact, it was first identified by the ancient Greeks. In the History of the Peloponnesian War, A historian named Thucydides noted this human tendency to favor information that supports our desires and dismiss information that doesn’t.
However, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that psychologists began to study it systematically. Specifically, psychologist Peter Wason conducted a series of experiments in the 1960s and found empirical evidence of confirmation bias (Wason, 1960).
Today, we know that confirmation bias can affect all areas of our lives, from our political and religious beliefs to our choices of friends and romantic partners. It can even influence our interpretation of scientific data and lead us to favor studies that support our views and dismiss those that don’t.
Signs of Confirmation Bias
Understanding the signs of confirmation bias is the first step towards managing its influence on our thoughts and decisions.
While it can be difficult to recognize when your own thinking process is biased, some common signs can help you identify when confirmation bias is clouding your judgment:
- Gathering information selectively – You favor information or sources that affirm your existing beliefs and ignore those that challenge them.
- Interpreting information in your favor – When faced with ambiguous information, you tend to interpret it in a way that supports your existing beliefs.
- Recalling confirming memories – You have a tendency to remember things that confirm your beliefs more than those that don’t.
- Perceiving confirming details – You notice details that affirm your beliefs more readily than those that contradict them.
- Resisting belief change – Despite being presented with strong evidence that contradicts your beliefs, you find it difficult to change your views.
- Feeling satisfaction from confirming information – When you find information that supports your beliefs, you feel a sense of satisfaction.
- Reacting defensively to contradictory information – You feel defensive or uncomfortable when your beliefs are challenged.
Nevertheless, these signs of confirmation bias are natural human tendencies. We all have biases that influence our thinking and decision-making. But recognizing these signs can help us question our automatic assumptions and make a conscious effort to consider different perspectives.
The Impact of Confirmation Bias on Our Judgment
The most obvious impact of confirmation bias on our thought process is that it can significantly distort our judgment and lead us to make decisions that are not fully informed or balanced. For instance, a study on perceptual decision-making tasks found that confirmation bias can lead to ‘primacy effects’ and ‘recency effects’ (Lange et al., 2021).
Primacy effects occur when our initial beliefs become entrenched and resistant to new evidence, while recency effects occur when our beliefs fade over time and rely primarily on more recent evidence. In either case, it’s important to recognize and manage confirmation bias.
But confirmation bias doesn’t just cloud our judgment. It can also have serious negative effects on our mental health and relationships. For example, a 2018 study discovered a significant link between cognitive biases, including confirmation bias, and increased levels of depression and anxiety (Smith et al., 2018). This means that these biases can contribute to the development and persistence of mental health conditions.
Furthermore, confirmation bias has a significant impact on social relationships. In fact, making decisions based on this bias can hinder our ability to maintain healthy connections with others. It narrows our perspective, which is crucial for understanding and empathizing with different viewpoints. As a result, this can strain relationships with friends, family, and coworkers.
Why We Ignore Contradicting Evidence
Ignoring contradicting evidence is a key aspect of confirmation bias, but why do we do it? There are several potential reasons:
- Cognitive discomfort – Contradicting evidence challenges our existing beliefs, which can create a sense of discomfort or cognitive dissonance. To avoid this discomfort, we often ignore or dismiss the contradicting evidence.
- Social conformity – We often adopt the beliefs of our social group. Contradicting evidence can isolate us from our group, so we ignore it to maintain social harmony.
- Wishful thinking – When we strongly desire a certain outcome, we tend to focus on information that supports this outcome and ignore information that doesn’t.
- A desire for simplicity – We naturally crave simplicity and coherence in our beliefs. Confirmation bias helps maintain this simplicity by filtering out contradicting information.
- Threat to self-identity – Our beliefs often form a part of our self-identity. Contradicting evidence can feel like a threat to our identity, leading us to reject it to maintain our self-image.
Overcoming Confirmation Bias
Since confirmation bias operates unconsciously, overcoming it may not be an easy task. However, if you develop the habit of challenging your existing beliefs before making a decision, chances are that your decisions will be more rational and less impacted by this cognitive bias.
Here are some empirically supported strategies to reduce the effects of confirmation bias on your decision-making:
- Make a conscious effort to seek out and consider information that contradicts your beliefs. The reason why this is important is that most of our decisions are impacted by ambiguous sources, such as social media. For example, studies show that 74% of consumers rely on social media, instead of making informed decisions. Of course, this often leads to biased outcomes.
But if we try to seek out diverse sources of information, we enhance the chances that our decisions are more balanced and informed.
- Work on your critical thinking skills. For this, you need to develop the habit of questioning your assumptions, considering alternative viewpoints, weighing all the pros and cons, and evaluating evidence objectively. By doing so, you can ensure your decisions are based on a comprehensive understanding of the situation rather than just your pre-existing beliefs.
- Try to slow down while making decisions. Confirmation bias often arises when we’re making quick, automatic decisions. Taking the time to slow down and consider all the evidence can help reduce the influence of this bias.
- Finally, don’t forget to seek out help, especially from those who might have a different perspective. Their perspectives can provide valuable insights that challenge your own views. This can be particularly helpful when dealing with complex decisions, as others may highlight aspects that you might have overlooked due to your own biases.
As you can see, overcoming confirmation bias requires continuous effort, self-awareness, and a willingness to challenge our own beliefs. Therefore, some individuals struggle to navigate this process alone.
However, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to go through this process alone — our professional therapists at Health for Life Counseling use empirically proven strategies to help you navigate life’s challenges, including confirmation bias. You can reach out to us in Grand Rapids, MI, or Ada, MI, or even schedule online sessions. We’re willing to help you take the first step toward a more balanced and informed decision-making process.