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Published: April 06, 2017

How Our Brains Trick Us into Believing the Wrong Things

Watching the past presidential elections, we can easily find protests and demonstrations where huge crowds of supporters argued with their opposing sides, blaming each other for the perceived mess they brought to the country.

Supporters of one side see only the good policies while turning a blind eye to others, and that’s how the confrontation begins.

Have you ever wondered why such a large discrepancy can be caused between the two? Instead of mere difference in political views, it was actually confirmation bias that came into play.

Reason for discrepancy: Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a psychological phenomenon where people tend to seek information to reinforce their own beliefs. It is also known as myside bias, which literally means the strong belief in the ideas of one’s own group when we are in a large collaborative group.

How is confirmation bias lethal to us? It blinds us from being objective to facts. Facts that oppose our beliefs. Facts that can prove us wrong. Consequently, we become irrational and render ourselves incapable of proper reasoning without realizing it.

Confirmation bias comes in three dimensions: Biased search for information, biased interpretation and biased memory. They all contribute to our misjudgment in different ways.

1. Biased Search for Information – Only Test in a One-sided Way

It refers to the tendency for people to test their hypotheses in a one-sided way. In simpler and more direct words, we only look for evidence consistent with our own hypotheses. This phenomenon has been confirmed by numerous experiments.

For example, in a study, participants were asked to rate another person on the introversion-extroversion scale from the performance of an interview they conducted with him/her. They were also provided with a list of interview questions to choose from. 1

Interestingly, when the interviewee was introduced as an introvert/extrovert, the interviewer would pick questions that presumed the personality. When introduced as an introvert, questions like “What do you find unpleasant about noisy parties?” were likely to be asked, which gave the interviewee little room to justify himself/herself.

The selection of questions served to reinforce the belief of the interviewee as an introvert/extrovert. And all these were done subconsciously.

2. Biased Interpretation – Interpret in a Way that Supports our Beliefs

We are also found lopsided to interpret a piece of information in a way that favors our beliefs. Even when we are given the same piece of evidence, people having opposing stances can view the evidence entirely differently. 2

During the presidential election in 2004, a study was conducted to people with strong feelings towards the two parties. They were given contradictory statements written by a Republican, a Democratic and a politically neutral figure. They were also convinced that the contradiction was reasonable. In the end, the result showed that participants were much more likely to rate the political figure of the opposing party contradictory, even with the same evidence.

3. Biased Memory – Remember Memory Selectively to Support Beliefs

Also known as “selective recall”, where people remember a piece of information selectively to reinforce their beliefs. There are two sayings in this bias, one suggesting memory consistent with prior expectations is stored more easily, while another one suggesting surprising information is more memorable. Both views are confirmed in studies. One thing to be sure is that we all have selective memory.

In one study, participants were asked to recall the traits of a person in a job application scenario. When told the applicant was looking for a librarian job, participants recalled more traits related to introversion. On the other hand, participants recalled more extroverted traits when they were told it was a real estate salesperson application. 3

Confirmation Bias Makes us Believe our Faulty Beliefs Even More

Up to this point, we are aware of the fact that our minds are biased. But what does it do to us?

On the scientific grounds we often look for a cause-and-effect relationship. If confirmation bias is in play, we are likely to fall into traps that affirm faulty hypotheses.

Researchers are sometimes guilty of confirmation bias by setting up experiments or framing their data in ways that will tend to confirm their hypotheses. It is common to see that one incident follows another, but does that mean there is a causal relationship?  Not necessarily, but when researchers seek to identify the relationship, they are likely to falsely recognize it as such.

When it comes to business decision making, it is also very dangerous to not be objective. People usually overlook the importance of information that may have substantially influenced the decision to be made when the piece of information is against their expected results.

For example, when an executive team is devising a new strategy, they are likely to magnify even the tiniest clue of success. The downside and contrary results are put aside and disregarded, or they are dismissed as exceptional or special cases which require little attention. Such flaws and selective blindness in decision-making can severely harm a business.

Or even back to simple daily life examples, like when we’re aiming to lose some weight.  You pick a diet and follow it, and your weight changes. If it reduced as expected, you might conclude that it is completely due to the diet’s effectiveness.  However, if later your weight rebounds, confirmation bias may wrongly lead you to ignore it as a random fluctuation and believe that the diet is still working perfectly.  In this case, confirmation bias might cause you to overlook some important hints about your own body.

To Defeat Confirmation Bias, Try These Practices

Now that we know that everyone has confirmation bias, how can we fight against it?

Prove Ourselves Wrong Instead

No theory or model is every absolutely perfect, and we can only make it better by finding out where it is wrong.  So when you write down your hypotheses, instead of seeking evidence only in favor of our view, try to actively look for the opposite.  Have the courage to find as much opposing evidence as you can, and it can give you big hints about where the flaws in our current ideas are.

Nurture Constructive but Independent Thinking in a Group

In group decision-making, create opportunities for each member to formulate their own ideas independently, and a safe environment to express them constructively.  Strive to clear away group-think assumptions that encourage everyone to jump on the same bandwagon.  Welcome people who have opposing ideas!  Instead of dismissing or confronting them, why not leverage each person’s unique point of view to illuminate our blind spots?  Having more perspectives can help the entire group create a clearer picture when making decisions.

This is actually what Abraham Lincoln did by inviting rival politicians and welcoming debate and discussion in spite of their completely contradicting opinions.  The same method is also used in police investigations.  Witnesses are generally not allowed to discuss with one another to prevent unintended (or intended) influence to maintain an unbiased testimony.

Expect the Unexpected Results

If we encounter unexpected situations or surprising results, never treat them as just a “special” or “exceptional” case and disregard them.  They are not!

Try to explain the occurrence of the incidents by providing 3 possible reasons.  Research has suggested 3 is the ideal number, as having more does not significantly help to analyze the problem. 4

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