Understanding and overcoming the confirmation bias conundrum

Saturday September 11 2021
Bias pic
By Epiphania Kimaro

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek or pay more attention to information that confirms, rather than challenges, our existing beliefs. Confirmation bias can prevent us from looking at situations objectively and lead to poor decisions. Although studies show that all people have some level of confirmation bias, there are actions that one can take to wade past it.


Examples of confirmation bias

Confirmation bias can be evident in the choices we make and the information sources we opt to follow. Have you ever wondered why you read a particular newspaper and not another, or why you vote for a particular politician and not another? Confirmation bias is at play for example, when people seek positive information that paints their favoured political candidates in a good light, and seek information that casts the opposing candidate in a negative light. However, by not seeking out objective facts, we miss important information that might lead to better decisions.

Confirmation bias also influences how we interpret information. Consider two people driving on a highway at night when a cat crosses the road almost causing them an accident. One narrates the incident as a vivid case of the ‘devil’ trying and failing to cause an accident.

The other narrates it as a probable case of a cat running for its life from a dog that was chasing it. Of course, no one can know for sure what the cat was trying to achieve. But it shows just how futile it can be to try to get people to think or act the same way, while we have such diverse beliefs. What is happening here of course is that the two drivers are interpreting the information based on their preexisting beliefs. Indeed, what one chooses to believe, they will find evidence to support.

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The popular saying ‘don’t shoot the message or the messenger’ reflects our natural tendency to reject or discount information that does not align with our existing beliefs. We sometimes want to listen only to what we want to hear, and walk with our fingers stuck in our ears, past and away from anything that challenges our existing beliefs. But what good does it do to us?

It helps us avoid discomfort. We love comfort. And as humans we crave for and find comfort in consistency. As such, we would rather visit the friend with whom we can gossip away without being challenged or criticized, than visit that aunt who has eccentric beliefs. Of course, it is discomforting to be challenged. But almost always, the person on the other side of a challenge or criticism is a better man indeed. The proverbial ‘open-mind’ is what we all need.


Overcoming confirmation bias

There are a lot of good materials on personal growth in many disciplines, from spiritual leaders, to psychologists and motivational speakers. In my years of reading and consuming some of these materials, here are some steps to overcoming confirmation bias, becoming more open-minded, and ultimately grow.

One: Adopt a ‘yes, and’ rather than a ‘yes, but’ approach to conversations. By saying ‘yes, and’, you are saying in effect that ‘I hear what you are saying’ not necessarily agreeing, and ‘I have something to add’. In contrast, saying ‘yes, but’ is likely to be interpreted as ‘I don’t agree with what you are saying’, or ‘what you are saying is wrong’, and ‘here is the correct thing’.

The second approach is most likely to make the other person defensive, lowering the overall quality of the conversation and potentially the relationship. Important to remember here is that saying yes does not necessarily mean agreeing. We go into conversations to share our views and listen to other people’s views. We must not agree, but we must strive to understand new perspectives.

Two: Ask why, at least five times. Again, the ultimate goal in conversations, especially those in which our views are challenged is to understand the other person’s perspective.

And one way to do that is to ask ‘why’, not to judge, but to genuinely seek understanding.

Three: Avoid the ‘one correct answer thinking’. Know that in most situations there are multiple courses of action that can address a situation, and all may be valid. If you believe you approach is the best, know that second-best approach can also be good enough.