Recently, I suggested that biases like confirmation bias are like the dark side of the force in Star Wars. The post was well-received except for one, who pushed back. “I disagree,” he declared. He argued that our bias towards action over non-action, as in our sense of fight, flight, or freeze, has helped us survive. Better to respond to a possible threat than to do nothing, he argued. The instinct to survive isn’t a trait we see as evil or associate as being from the dark side. He had a point.
The debate left me thoughtful for days. Curiosity churned as I began to see cognitive biases were good for us, but I also knew they led us to make bad choices as well. I struggled to think about all cognitive biases in general, so I opted to focus on one – confirmation bias.
What are the good – and bad points of confirmation bias? Could I, by being more aware of these, stop them from leading me astray. Before I could find an answer, I needed to know what I was looking for first.
What is confirmation bias?
A quick search and Wikipedia gives us a nine thousand work answer. Thankfully, the opening sentence is sufficient in its explanation.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values.— Wikipedia
A bias towards action – which stems from accepting evidence that confirms our initial belief is a powerful tool to have. It stops us from dithering over mundane decisions. We act when evidence supports our prior belief – even when it might be bad for us. Putting the bad bit to one side, I could see how helpful – and unseen – confirmation bias is. We navigate complex choices with ease, and it's all down to a bias we have little awareness of.
The bad side of confirmation bias
No one says anything nice about our bias for confirming evidence. It is all doom and gloom. We use it to accept our assumptions, to accept opinions from others when we shouldn’t, and to help us do what suits us – even when it's wrong. It allows us to sidestep the acceptance of a changing world and of living with uncertainty.
I have seen confirmation bias destroy careers. No other mindset breeds arrogance better than confirmation bias. Our ability to seek self-confirming proof that disarms bad behaviour catches us all out, leading towards misplaced confidence in our decisions. Dig deep enough into the minds of those in prison, and you will find a moment where confirmation bias fooled them.
What we can’t grasp is how confirmation bias impacts every negative decision we make. The chocolate bar at lunchtime, driving faster than the speed limit, staying up late, not drinking enough water – these are times when confirmation bias has tricked us. We are blind to its power for one reason. It is an intuitive response – for a good reason.
The positive part of accepting confirming evidence.
Intuition allows us to act without the need for conscious reasoning. Our intuitive responses come from our experiences, our beliefs, and whatever historical learnings we have in our genes. These principles guide our taste, our likes – and dislikes, and our basic need to survive.
Confirmation bias is an intuitive act, one which fits within the framework of intuition. When you pause and think about it, you can see how helpful this bias is. In most of our daily decisions, having a bias that seeks and accepts confirming evidence saves so much time. We don’t overthink decisions because we don’t need to.
Think of our eating – the act of consuming food to generate energy. We don’t question whether we like the toast we are eating for breakfast – because we had it yesterday. If we had white bread for toast yesterday, and today there is only wholemeal, we will still eat it. The logic to this choice is this – confirmation bias has seen it as bread, albeit with different flour, and accepted this as evidence that we will like it. Can you imagine making this choice without confirmation bias?
Can awareness help you manage confirmation bias?
We use confirmation bias without any awareness of it. Intuitive decision-making works far better than we dare to understand. We are unaware of how confirmation bias allows us to accept doing what we’ve done before. There is no avoiding this – nor would you want to.
Complete awareness, on the other hand, suggests a world of indecision. Simple choices would have to be questioned, leading to paralysis when deciding, leaving us stuck in a world of analysis.
Maybe our need for awareness doesn’t lie with confirmation bias - it lies in knowing the decision is different. We need to be self-aware when making new decisions, or unique, never made before decisions. Being aware of this allows us to sidestep intuition as a whole – to avoid confirmation bias and all the other biases lurking in our minds.
Intuition drives our reactionary behaviour, as those inherited genes force us to focus on survival. Escaping this instinct is arguably our greatest challenge. I am, yet again, reminded of the Viktor E. Frankl quote.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” —Viktor E. Frankl.
It is this space where our need for awareness lives. We need to pause and reflect – and let our awareness see the decision for what it is. Seeking control in this way isn’t easy, but we need to try and restrict how intuitive we are.
It seems petty to class cognitive biases as bad. We know a poor decision often holds a moment when confirmation bias wins – defeating our search for further evidence to support our choice. Ironically, we struggle to learn from this – even when it happens repeatedly. No other reason explains the dark impression we have of confirmation bias.
Putting the demonisation to one side for a minute, simply beginning to understand how important the use of confirming evidence is in the mundane choices we make, shows the bias in a new light. Now, we see its strength as it removes uncertainty from our decisions. It also explains how it influences a bad decision.
We should – and need to see a new important decision as a new decision – which should prompt a different way of thinking. By doing this, we stand a chance of avoiding confirmation bias. We also stand a chance of limiting the impact of intuition – and avoiding the traps of other cognitive biases.
Taking the time to understand the impact – and the importance of cognitive biases shows us they are far from bad. Just like the force in Star Wars, there is a good side – and a bad side. All we need to do is remember how to embrace the good and avoid the bad.