Reigning in the Mother of All Cognitive Biases

Polarization. Misunderstanding. Distrust. False certainty.

These are just a few of the ill-effects of the subconscious impulse known as confirmation bias.

Of the over 180 cognitive biases that influence our thinking and decision making, confirmation bias has been called “the mother of all biases” and with good reason. It is extremely common and pernicious and makes us susceptible to errors in how we understand and process our world.

It is the most well-known cognitive bias and gets the most press, but most of us vastly underestimate the impact it has on us.

I’m a believer (so are you)

Let’s think about how we form a belief. We think we do this:

1) We read or hear an idea or opinion.

2) Based on the evidence available, we form a rational belief about it.

3) If we encounter strong conflicting evidence, we change our belief.

That’s an illusion. This is how it usually works:

1) We read or hear an idea or opinion.

2) If we like the idea (or the person who said it), we are likely to believe it, evidence or not. In other words, believing it feels good.

3) If we encounter conflicting data, we ignore it as false or irrelevant or we discount the source. If we encounter supporting data, we embrace, share and spread it.

For example, you hear that Senator Hornswoggle hates short people. If you already dislike the Senator, you now have another log for the fire. If you are a fan of hers, you are likely to dismiss the report as a partisan hackjob.

Your brain is built with a preference for feeling right and to feel certain about it. To actually BE right is not the top priority.

Philosopher Francis Bacon said it well in 1602: “The human understanding, when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things … to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises or … sets aside and rejects in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination, the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate”.

When we become so sure we are right due to all the confirming information we have seen, it becomes pointless to argue with the other side who are so grossly misinformed.

What can we do about confirmation bias?

The reason it's called the mother of all biases is because it distorts what we know and how we act and is incredibly difficult to resist - even when we know we are experiencing it. Still, there are a few strategies that can help you reduce your confirmation bias.

QUIT THE TEAM. Self-identifying with an ideological or political label gives confirmation bias an anchor to grab onto. When prominent people in that group express opinions, they are far more likely to become your opinions and confirmation bias comes marching in.

PROVE THE ANTITHESIS. Imagine you had to prove that the opposite of what you believe is the truth. What are the best arguments? What is the supporting evidence? Try it with a topic you feel strongly about. You will find it extremely difficult because it triggers all kinds of internal resistance.

EMPHASIZE GROWTH over your need to be right. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman

says he is happy when he discovers that he was wrong, because it means he is less wrong now. And that’s a win!

Although “disillusionment” is regarded as a negative and something to avoid, it is actually a great thing. It literally means to longer believe in an illusion. The more we are disillusioned, the better our decision making will be because we are no longer informed by false beliefs.

Confirmation bias will always be with us, especially as the media finds new and more diabolical ways to trigger it, especially through fear and outrage and suspicion. But we can make an effort to reduce its effects. That will open up opportunities for growth and is sure to improve your decision making and overall performance.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

Decision performance specialist

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