You're hanging out at home, scrolling through your favorite social media platform. You see a post about the “typical” M-F, 9-5 workweek. It's a topic you've given a lot of thought to; you think a 3-day workweek would greatly benefit society. And you're pleased to see that the person who posted agrees.
The post talks about how it would boost worker productivity, jump-start the economy, and provide much-needed time off for the average person. "Aha!" you shout. "This person GETS it. I knew I was right!"
Now, did you notice that the post is by the Hawaii Tourism Board? Nope. Did you consider that maybe, just maybe, they have a reason to promote more vacation days? Nope. The reason: they were posting information you already agreed with.
Viola: you were just the victim of confirmation bias.
Confirmation Bias = favoring information that confirms your beliefs, and discounting (or ignoring) information that contradicts your beliefs.
Psychologists have been studying confirmation bias for decades. However, in recent years, social media has exacerbated the confirmation bias trend – driving people with different views farther and farther apart. The reason: social media is designed to feed you more of what you like and agree with – and less of what you don't.
A Little History
Confirmation bias was first identified in the '70s by a series of research experiments conducted at Stanford University. One of the most interesting and noteworthy studies was on capital punishment.
Two groups – one of whom favored the death penalty and one who opposed it – were each given two studies to read. One study had data showing that the death penalty was a deterrent for crime, and the other had data showing it wasn't. (Unbeknownst to the subjects, the studies were totally fake.)
The researchers found that the people who initially favored the death penalty took the 'pro' data more seriously, and the 'anti' data less seriously. And vice versa.
Not only that, when people were asked how they felt after reading the studies, the pro-death penalty group reported believing in it more, and the anti-death penalty group reported being more against it!
Psychologist C. James Goodwin gives another example:
"Persons believing in extrasensory perception (ESP) will keep close track of instances when they were 'thinking about Mom, and then the phone rang and it was her!' Yet they ignore the far more numerous times when (a) they were thinking about Mom and she didn't call and (b) they weren't thinking about Mom and she did call.”
Why We Do It
For one, it feels good to be correct. What we believe is an essential part of our identity, so we prefer stuff that "proves "us right because it makes us feel good about who we are. (And we avoid information that might hurt our self-esteem by making us feel we’re wrong.)
Second, it's easier – and our brains prefer easy. Let's face it, learning new things (especially things that go against our existing beliefs) is difficult. But more importantly, it takes time, and our brain likes to form shortcuts (a.k.a., "heuristics") to keep things nice and quick. So it's faster to just keep thinking how we already do.
Confirmation bias is everywhere, from the courtroom to the boardroom. For example: hundreds of convictions have been overturned due to witnesses' confirmation bias. In business settings, researchers have found that companies will often dismiss data if it goes against the boss's beliefs.
And of course, as we mentioned above, confirmation bias is a major component of the algorithms that drive social media – and the news media. If the goal is to make the posts/ads that show up in people's feeds feel relevant and interesting to them, the easiest way to do that is to show/suggest stuff that’s in line with each person's existing preferences and beliefs.
Media outlets prey on this: they’ve discovered that when they frame "news stories" in ways that confirm customers' existing beliefs, they'll get more clicks, likes, and views. So different news outlets will vary their headlines, copy and coverage in different ways that fit their audience’s political views. They’ll even ignore stories entirely if those stories drastically contradict their customers’ beliefs.
The result: we literally don’t see posts, news items, etc. that contradict our beliefs – and people on the right and left *literally* live in different information worlds.
(Source: The New Yorker)
So Is There Any Hope?
Yes! Here are our best tips and tricks for fighting confirmation bias:
- Seek out other perspectives on the same issue. A small example: If you read The NY Times, you should also subscribe to the Wall Street Journal (and vice versa!).
- Notice when you react to something. A great signal that confirmation bias might be rearing its ugly head: you start getting defensive about something that's not genuinely personal (e.g., the President's success on X or Y initiative).
- Ask people with opposing views why they feel the way they do. We know this can make people feel defensive, but remember:
- Empathy does not equal endorsement. You can listen to someone's POV without agreeing with it.
- Listening to another person's point of view might bring up valid points (from opposing perspectives) that you haven't yet considered, and thus better inform your own opinion.
- Stay humble. Remember: it's unlikely that you're right about everything (no matter what your ego might be saying!). Strive to learn rather than win, and utilize your critical thinking skills to be as objective as possible.
- Find sources that make it a point to contrast differing viewpoints, such as Tangle (our favorite newsletter!) and Ground News (a site that shows you the coverage bias of various news items, and allows you to see how the same news item is positioned across the political spectrum).
At The Deep, we try to combat our confirmation bias every single day by asking questions that challenge people (including ourselves!) to explore multiple points of view. We also try as much as possible to take a neutral, non-partisan and non-judgmental stance on things – which allows people to talk to us without fear of getting into an argument. But, of course, we're susceptible to confirmation bias just like everybody else.
One of the best lessons we've learned when trying to combat our own confirmation bias is to stop and ask ourselves if we are *genuinely* and *open-mindedly* pursuing the truth – or if we’re just doubling down on our existing beliefs.
Well, that, and lots of cardio.