Confirmation Bias

Brain
First thing you should know is that this is yet another post about being, you know, nice.

Obviously, being nice isn’t very interesting and is rarely particularly amusing, so this post may struggle to achieve either. Apologies. Normal, cynical, hilarious service will resume soon.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about confirmation bias. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s defined by Wikipedia as “a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses“. Examples are, I don’t know, you hate immigrants, and the immigrants you notice are the muggers and the beggars, and the stories you read about are the ones about forced marriages and honour killings, and the stats you’re aware of are all crime figures and just the number, the sheer number of people who are in this country that weren’t born here. In the meantime, even if you’ve read them or seen them or noticed them at the time, the immigrant doctors and inventors and philanthropists, the politicians and charity workers and heroes, and the stats that show immigrants draw less in benefits than the “indigenous”, all that passes straight through your head and out the other side and when it’s time to have an opinion, the only things left for that opinion to rely on all seem to point the same way.

More examples: cyclists are always in the middle of the road. Car drivers are all psychos. Every f*cking time I try to reverse out of the drive that b*st*rd from round the corner is blocking the road. The terrorists are always deliberately targetting the innocent; the regime is always looking for any excuse for more repression. The trains are always late, the drivers are always rude, or on strike, there are examples everywhere. And even me saying that, “there are examples everywhere“, that could be confirmation bias, because I might just be highlighting examples that prove it and ignoring those that don’t.

So what can you do about it?

First thing is just to be aware of it. We all read the newspapers we choose to read and look at the blogs and media outlets we like because, for the most part, they agree with what we say. We want our opinions validated, and we gravitate towards the sources that’ll do that for us. So once in a while, look at something else, and if you read or hear things you might disagree with, things that conflict with your world view, don’t just assume they’re lying or wrong, and dismiss it all as propaganda. Of course, that’s all about the wider world, geopolitics, fiscal policies, all that jazz. It’s much harder when it’s closer to home. But the same thing applies: try to remember the days the guy round the corner doesn’t block the road. Try to imagine how he feels, having to wait politely for you to reverse out of your drive all those times before he can get his van where it needs to be. Consider the occasions where the cyclists wave you politely by, or move over. Don’t dismiss all those times as aberrations. They’re probably not.

Of course, fully defeating confirmation bias is probably impossible. Scratch one bias away, and you’ll just find another one lurking underneath. Instead, I’ve got a better idea.

Because the thing about confirmation bias, in this angry little world of ours, is that the things we want confirmed are always so bloody negative, aren’t they? So why not change that. Rather than fighting confirmation bias, let it work for you. Let it make everyone happy.

It starts, then, not with fighting the bias, but with a little empathy. Use your imagination, identify with the people you feel like fighting against, turn that imagination and identification into making your stand. Like I wrote here.

And once you’ve done that, the rest will just flow. You won’t have to look hard for examples of people behaving kindly, or heroically, or, you know, just plain reasonably, because having once decided that’s how most people do behave, confirmation bias will take over and you’ll see it everywhere. A glorious virtuous circle proving that all is genuinely right with the world. As long as there’s a hard-core rump of cynical political types out there who don’t believe it for a second, the rest of us can walk around with our heads in the metaphorical clouds, being right most of the time and not suffering too much when we fail to spot the occasional real b*st*rd out there.

Because the fact is, however hard we try to avoid it, we all suffer from confirmation bias and we always will. It’s what it is we want confirmed that makes the difference.

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4 comments

  1. oh I don’t know. I think nice is as interesting as nasty – well in fact neither is intrinsically. Or isn’t.

    1. Thanks – nice is certainly rarer, anyway….

  2. You’re right about confirmation bias. I think it’s evolutionarily helpful, in some ways, and in moderation. You don’t want your mind to be crowded with thousands of equal theories – you need to put your money down on one and follow it, usually. But then, sometimes it’s wrong.

    1. Hadn’t considered the evolutionary angle. Possibly was once essential – and certainly in (for instance) establishing the hegemony of Western-style liberal democracy. But these days – well, not sure it’s so helpful any more. Although without it we could all end up like a bunch of dithering Hamlets, which wouldn’t help.

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