Confirmation Bias: Not Just for Scientists

If someone claims to be objective, tell them they’re crazy. If they’re human, that is.

We all suffer from a condition called confirmation bias, or a tendency to seek information that supports our individually held beliefs about a subject. It’s a natural and largely unconscious side effect of being human.

The brain is exposed to millions upon millions of stimuli each day and our job is to attempt to make sense of all the noise. We do this through selective attention, or by focusing on a particular set of stimuli and tuning out the rest. This is why we can maintain a conversation with people in a crowded bar or restaurant. While we are ‘hearing’ every other conversation in the room, we’re able to hone in on the one happening in front of us. The phenomenon is hence known as the cocktail party effect.

Another way we navigate through the thick forest of information is by reading, watching, and clicking things that appeal to what we already believe. For instance, if I strongly oppose the public, anti-gay agenda of fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, I’m going to read articles that criticize their views more than those that defend them (Challenge: Notice how that sentence just confirmed my bias).

Confirmation bias inevitably plagues two disciplines that run on being objective and sticking to the facts: journalism and science.

Robert Wright, senior editor at The Atlantic, recently wrote about how the Israeli media, probably unintentionally, spun comments from Iranain President Ahmadinejad into “gloating publicly” about the death of five Israeli tourists.

Matt Ridley of The Wall Street Journal has written two articles about confirmation bias in science as part of a three part series on the subject: When Bad Theories Happen to Good Scientists and Three Cheers for Scientific Backbiting.

Scientists represent an interesting case of confirmation bias because they work so hard to avoid it. Let’s say a researcher is interested in how performance enhancing drugs affect an athlete’s mood. The problem has already begun: by merely having an interest in something, the scientist is already biased toward results that may confirm even a vague relationship between the two variables. A truly objective scientist would be a psychologist studying quantum physics, but how many of those do you see?

There are, of course, methods in place to minimize confirmation bias as much as possible. Scientists are always in search of significant results, or a demonstrated change that is so pronounced it’s probably due to something more than just chance. Testing results for reliability is another way to try to justify findings – can another research group repeat the experiment and obtain similar results?

At the end of the day, we can’t completely free ourselves from confirmation bias. We just don’t have the processing power to analyze every bit of information out there to make a fully objective observation. A healthy dose of skepticism can go a long way to reaping the efficiency of confirmation bias while minimizing the damage.

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