Tag Archives: B. F. Skinner

The Confirmation Bias — What Do You Really Know: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 6

Well, here we are into the sixth week of biases in judgment and decision-making. Every Monday, I look at my list of cognitive biases and I see that we’ve still got quite a few weeks to go until I’ve exhausted the biases that I want to talk about. This week was a toss-up: I was trying to decide between the fundamental attribution error and the confirmation bias. After flipping a bottle cap (seriously, there wasn’t a coin close by), I’ve decided to talk about the confirmation bias.

Like last week, the confirmation bias is easy to understand in its definition: it’s the tendency to seek out information that confirms one’s previously held beliefs. In a journal article that’s been cited over 1000 times, Ray Nickerson stated:

If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration. Many have written about this bias, and it appears to be sufficiently strong and pervasive that one is led to wonder whether the bias, by itself, might account for a significant fraction of the disputes, altercations, and misunderstandings that occur among individuals, groups, and nations.

Why is the confirmation bias so loathed? Well, as Nickerson points out, it may be the root cause of many disputes both on an individual and an international level. Let’s think about this for a second: let’s say that in the world of objectivity “out there,” there are any number of possibilities. In the world  of subjectivity “inside my head,” there are only the possibilities that I can imagine. Humans, on the whole, tend to fear change (there are over 600,000,000 results for that search on Google!). In order to allay those fears, I’m going to prefer information that already conforms to my previously held beliefs. As a result, when I look “out there,” I’m going to unconsciously be looking for things that are “inside my head.” Let’s take this discussion out of the abstract because there are plenty of examples of it.

If you’re still not convinced and think you’re “beyond” the confirmation bias, I would urge you to try and solve the problem on this site. If you give the problem its due respect, I bet that you’ll be surprised as to your solution vs. the actual solution.

Ways for Avoiding the Confirmation Bias

As with other cognitive biases, being aware that there is such a thing as the confirmation bias is really important. It can be hard to change something if you don’t know that there’s something to be changed.

1) Seek out contradictory ideas and opinions

This is something that I’ve written about before. If at all possible, you’ve got to be sure that you’re getting information that is counter to your beliefs from somewhere. If not, there’s little chance for growth and expansion. This can be difficult for some, so I’ve outlined ways to do this on the post I referenced above.

2) Seek out people with contradictory ideas and opinions

I answered a question on Quora last November where I placed these two ways for avoiding the confirmation bias one and two. Some folks might find it a little more difficult to seek out people with opposing views and that’s why I suggest starting with seeking out contradictory views in print (or some other form of media) to begin. However, in my experience, speaking with someone who has opposing views to mine (assuming that they are also altruistic in their endeavor to seek out opposing views) can be quite enriching. A real-life person can usually put up a better defense when your “confirmation bias” is activated. Similarly, you can do the same for them.

3) What do you really know?

My last suggestion for avoiding the confirmation bias is to always be questioning what it is that you know. This can sound tedious, but if you get into the habit of questioning “how” you know something or “why” you know something, you’d be surprised how ‘thin’ the argument is for something that you know. For instance, let’s say that you have a racial stereotype that ethnicity “x” is bad at driving. When you’re on the highway, you notice that someone from ethnicity “x” cuts you off. Instead of going into a tizzy about ethnicity “x,” you might stop and remember that, in fact, of all the times that you’ve been cut off, ethnicity “x” is the ethnicity that cuts you off the least. This is a curt example, but I think you get the idea. Just to emphasize my point: I would argue that questioning your deeply held beliefs would be a good way of countering the confirmation bias.

So, what do you really know?

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

Ignore Sunk Costs: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 1

It can be really fun to write a series of posts on a particular topic. By my count, I’ve done this at least seven times so far. Today, I’d like to start what I hope will be an oft-read series on biases in judgment and decision-making (to some, cognitive biases). Because of my background in psychology and my interest in decision-making, I thought it would be wise to share with you the things that I’ve learned either through the classes I’ve taken (the classes I’ve taught!) or the research I’ve read. With each bias, my goal is to explain the bias and offer some possible avenues for not falling into the trap of the bias. Today, we start with one of the big ones: the sunk cost fallacy.

Sunk costs are those costs that have already happened and can’t be recovered. For instance, let’s say you buy an apple and bite into it. The money you used to buy that apple can’t be recovered — it’s a sunk cost. Now let’s say the apple doesn’t taste very good (maybe it’s inorganic). You might say, ‘well, I’ve already paid for the apple, so I might as well eat it.’ NO! That’s the sunk cost fallacy! Just because you’ve already bought the apple and paid for it, doesn’t mean you have to eat it. If it tastes bad, by golly, don’t eat it!

That’s a rather basic example of the sunk cost fallacy, so let’s look at one that might seem a bit more applicable. Sunk costs often come into the fray when they’re contrasted with future costs. Let’s say you’ve bought a subscription to a newspaper or a magazine. Because of your subscription, you get a discount when it’s time to renew your subscription. Now, let’s say that in that year of your subscription, you discovered that there was another newspaper/magazine that you preferred (maybe The Economist?). When it comes time to renew your subscription, you look at the two options to either subscribe to The Economist or continuing with your other subscription. You find out that the discounted price for your current newspaper/magazine will be the same price as The Economist. You say to yourself, “well, I’ve already subscribed to this newspaper and spent so much money on it, so I might as well keep subscribing to it.” NO! That’s the sunk cost fallacy. The money you’ve spent on the subscription for the other newspaper/magazine can’t be recovered! You can’t get it back. As a result, it shouldn’t affect the decision you make now about whether to choose it or The Economist

There’s one more quick example that I want to highlight: war. From a paper by a professor at Princeton:

The United States has invested much in attempting to achieve its objectives. In addition to the many millions of dollars that have been spent, many thousands of lives have been lost, and an even greater number of lives have been irreparably damaged. If the United States withdraws from Vietnam without achieving its objectives, then all of these undeniably significant sacrifices would be wasted. [Emphasis added]

Pay particular attention to that last sentence. That is the sunk cost fallacy in action.

Ways for Avoiding the Sunk Cost Fallacy

So, now that we’ve looked at the sunk cost fallacy, how can we avoid it? Well, the first step in avoiding the sunk cost fallacy is recognizing it. Hopefully, the above examples have given you an idea of how this bias can arise. There are a two other ways I want to highlight that you can use to avoid this trap.

1) What am I assuming?

The crux of the sunk cost fallacy is based on an assumption. That is, you’re assuming that because you’ve already spent money on X, that you should keep spending money on X. If you look at what it is that you’re assuming about a situation, you just might find that you’re about to step into the sunk cost trap.

2) Are there alternatives?

Related to the above example is alternatives. You’re not bound to a decision because you’ve made a similar decision in the past. Just because you bought the ticket to go to the movie, if another activity presents itself as more enticing, you’re allowed to choose that one instead. In fact, if when you sit down to watch the movie, it’s bad, you’re allowed to get up and walk out. Don’t fall into the sunk cost trap thinking that you have to stay because you paid for it. There are any number of things you could be doing: going for a walk, calling an old friend, etc.