What is confirmation bias?

So you’re walking down the street and a bunch of schoolkids walk past talking loudly. You turn to regard them in annoyance and just happen to overhear the topic of conversation. They were talking about a book that you read when you were younger.

Be honest, you’ve read them.

“Strange”, you think to yourself. “Kids these days still read?” You carry on with your day and nothing else of note happens. On another day whilst shopping, you notice that very book on display in a book shop. Weird. Physical book shops still exist? At work your coworker quotes a line from the book and you begin to wonder.

What’s going on?

Does anyone actually know what happened in the video?

I’m afraid my friend, you have a case of the frequency illusion. Much like the human condition, it’s incurable and terminal. It starts off small and you merely take more notice in whatever is at the forefront of your conscience. It can gradually evolve into a fully blown case of confirmation bias and change the entire way you perceive reality and distort how you see the world. Sounds bad? Probably. But not as bad as the sense of humor in this post.

Anyway, what is confirmation bias and what does frequency illusion have to do with it? Well, like in the example above, once you take note of something, it becomes increasingly likely that you will be more and more aware of its occurrence around you. It’s a bit like when you’re looking to buy a new car and you walk down the street, wondering why you didn’t notice all those cars on the road until now. Or when you lose your phone on the train and next time you’re on the train, you notice how everyone is looking down at their smartphone. What happens normally is that these everyday events occur all the time, but since they’re not relevant to you, you unconsciously filter them out.

Your brain does an awesome job at filtering out unnecessary stuff.

Okay, so what does this have to do with confirmation bias? Whilst the frequency illusion is a passive effect of observation, confirmation bias occurs when you actively seek to view the world through a filter and cherry pick what information you expose yourself to. At its foundation, it is the idea of only taking in data that affirms your established beliefs while ignoring everything to the contrary. Additionally, you also interpret ambiguous information as reinforcing your standpoint and twist the truth to strengthen your belief.

There are many types of confirmation bias, including the search for information, interpretation and memory. The search for information is the tendency for people to seek information by seeking data that is consistent with their existing hypothesis at the time. Experiments have found that most participants have a preference for positive tests and in a situation where an established hypothesis has been formed, it becomes important to notice the role it plays in establishing the outcome. An experiment had participants decide which parent would take ownership of a child in a fictional custody battle. One parent had noticeable positive and negative traits, whilst the other had generally positive traits. When the issue was awarding custody to one of them, most people took notice of the salient positive characteristics and chose the first. When the question was reversed and they were asked to find which parent should not be awarded custody, they looked for negative qualities and still chose the first. In each case, only the affirmative facts of the were regarded by most participants, neglecting the relevant, but contradictory traits of the parent.

The best social network. Just look at all the features!

Interpretation bias occurs when people who are presented with the same information draw different conclusions. This can be attributed to something called the disconfirmation bias, where our standards for the acceptance of new information are set differently depending on whether they support or deny our beliefs. For example, when a scientist is presented with a paper that follows his previous research, he would not apply the same standards of scrutiny that he would for an article about ghosts and psychic powers. It has been shown that when an idea has already been established, during the course of judging information of differing opinions, more importance is placed on data that confirm rather than deny the belief.

You only see what you want to see.

Similarly, memory bias, which also known as selective recall, is when information remembered by people are mostly those that follow or extend their current beliefs. In a study conducted in 1979, a list of traits for a person, including both introvert and extrovert characteristics, was given to participants. One group was then told that the person was a librarian and another group told a real estate agent. When asked to recall what the person was like, those told that the person was a librarian listed more introverted traits, while those thinking about a real estate agent recalled more extroverted traits. Data that reinforce one’s belief is much easier and faster to recall compared to conflicting or neutral information.

Okay, so now we have convinced ourselves that we understand the process of confirmation bias, we want to know how it affect the real world. In many instances it could lead to potentially incorrect conclusions, which is unsurprising considering that the judgment of data was not entirely impartial. It could lead investors to believe that they are skillful in determining high performing shares, when they were merely lucky with their first trade. It could lead researchers to design unfair experiments or interpret data in a certain way. One of the most noticeable effects of confirmation bias are seen in people who believe in psychic ‘readings’. So called psychics often cold read and give sweeping generalizations which are so generic that some parts are likely to apply to people. The ‘prediction’ is then taken in by the audience, who by their preconceived notions believe that the psychic can see their thoughts (or something), focus only on the correct parts of the reading and ignore the others, creating the illusion of a highly accurate prediction.

I predicted your thoughts even before you saw this image.

Jumping to the wrong conclusion could be a bad idea, so how do we avoid it? A simple way would be to play the devil’s advocate and take up an opposing stance to whatever you are trying to argue. Finding why a theory doesn’t work could sometimes serve as much purpose as finding why it does. Attempting to look at the problem objectively, whilst obvious, is actually harder to practice than it seems. The nature of your existing beliefs is such that questioning over their validity would not occur to you normally, making it very difficult to recognize your susceptibility to confirmation bias. Above all, treat all information equally and utilize processes like peer review, which could greatly decrease the impact of confirmation bias.

Here’s a hasty summary for those who like things in a nutshell.

  1. Confirmation bias is a tendency to see only what we want to see;
  2. This includes behaviors such as giving different weights to data, remembering only certain information and interpreting data to fit our preconceived notions;
  3. Our bias is largely influenced by our existing beliefs and our desire to stay true to them;
  4. There are many instances of confirmation bias in our everyday lives and their effects extends from investing to scientific investigations; and
  5. I have a terrible sense of humor.

References, further reading and footnotes

Wikipedia - You can’t actually do any research without it.

You Are Not So Smart - Quite useful and interesting read.

There were a lot of similar concepts that I didn’t go into, but you can read more about cherry pickingcold readingattitude polarization and illusory correlation (on Wikipedia of course).

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