Bothersome biases of the brain: confirmation bias

The human brain is pretty fancy. A lump of tissue – 100 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses – with the job of keeping you alive, generating your consciousness, allowing you to perceive and interact with the environment, allowing you to communicate in incredibly complex ways, allowing you to interpret a complex world and the other people in it. So you have to cut it some slack if, sometimes, it uses shortcuts. It uses shortcuts, and it relies on assumptions, and it likes to fit things into neat classifications in order to understand them quickly and effectively. And that can be a little bit of a problem.

The brain is prone to a lot of biases that are the result of the fact that, somehow, in some situations, they are (or were) advantageous. The ability to react quickly to your surroundings and to understand and gauge things efficiently are obviously of use from an evolutionary perspective. But applied to more rarefied, sophisticated contexts, such as complex decision-making in modern society, our brains can be a bit oafish.

One of these biases is confirmation bias – the tendency to only look for, or to over-emphasise, the information that confirms an opinion you already hold, or that you wish to hold. Confirmation bias can bias the way you search for information (like if you’re looking at reviews of a product you’re thinking about buying but you tend to skim over the negative reviews, or you read a couple of positive reviews then stop looking for further reviews) or it can bias the way you interpret information (so if a review of a product was neutral or vague, you might somehow manage to convince yourself that it was actually a little bit positive, or you might read a negative review but then decide, for whatever reason, that the author is probably actually a raving idiot).

Obviously, confirmation bias can effect your decision-making process when it comes to purchases. Consuming responsibly means (to me, at least) trying to make good decisions about purchases in an effort to minimise wastefulness and redundancy and to maximise use and longevity. The first step in minimising the effect of confirmation bias on a decision involves being aware that confirmation bias exists – so that’s accomplished now. It requires effort, but you really can force yourself to evaluate information more objectively – not purely objectively (that is simply not possible) – and improving your ability to be objective, by however much, can only be a good thing.

  • Make yourself read those negative reviews rather than ignoring them or only giving them a cursory glance. Read that contrary information and try to give it due consideration.
  • Pay attention and learn about your own tendencies and then try to navigate them (for example, I have a tendency to ignore information contrary to my beliefs if it’s poorly written or contains bad spelling, because I’ll think something like “Oh, this person can’t even spell ‘burgundy’, why should I listen to anyone who spells it ‘burgandy’?” but really what I’m doing is letting a cognitive bias skew my thinking).
  • Keep asking yourself whether the conclusion you keep coming to is just a bit too convenient, given that it was the conclusion you wanted to come to.
  • Discuss it with an uninvested party (friends, family members, people on an internet forum – whoever might be more impartial than you).
  • Just just keep thinking about your thinking. Do some meta-thinking. You can really learn a lot from it.

More on other cognitive biases in future posts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Post Navigation