Tag Archives: Knowledge

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:

You Need To Seek Out Ideas and Opinions That Are Different From Your Beliefs

[Editor’s Note: This post’s title was changed on September 16th from “if you’re a conservative, tell me which liberals you read: if you’re a liberal, tell me which conservatives you read.”]

I was born and raised in Canada and really didn’t start paying attention to politics until I moved to the US, so most of my understanding of politics comes through the lens of American politics. Watching the Democrats and the Republicans fight (bicker?) year after year starts to get intolerable. As , many American agree with this sentiment.

Part of this is a result of our to seek out opinions that confirm our own previously held beliefs. That is, if one is more liberal, they are probably more inclined to watch MSNBC and/or read the New York Times. Similarly, if one is more conservative, they are probably more inclined to watch FOX News and/or read the Wall Street Journal. There’s no “good” or “bad” here, though I would .

So, if we know that we have a tendency to seek out opinions that confirm our previously held beliefs, it would behoove us to intentionally seek out opinions that we know are counter to our own! That sounds a lot easier than it actually is — especially in today’s world of RSS, Twitter, Facebook, and personalized news.

Not to pick on Facebook, but the friends you have on Facebook, more than likely, share your political affiliation. It’s just natural for us to befriend those and even if you have a few friends from the “other side,” the news that they share on Facebook will most likely: a) get drowned out by all your other friends’ sharing news; or b) won’t be elevated to the top of your newsfeed because you tended not to click on the links provided by these friends.

While I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with it, I do think that there’s something that we should be doing about it. If you’re a conservative, there are a critical mass of people out there who think that your opinion on issues of the day are wrong. If you’re a liberal, there are a critical mass of people out there who think that your opinion on issues of the day are wrong. What are you doing to try to understand why they think your opinion is wrong?

And yes, there are things that you can do.

Lifehacker proposed to do this:

  • Get random reading content delivered to your inbox
“The easiest, no hassle way to get a random selection of news is to have it delivered right to your inbox.”
  • Automatically get different points of view for articles you read
“When you’re browsing the news it’s easy to stick with the sites you know. Sometimes that means you’re missing an entirely different point of view.”
  • Randomize your start page
“Your browser’s home page is a great place to dump interesting and random content for your accidental and automatic discovery. Obviously you don’t want to do this on your work computer in case you get distracted, but it’s a good way to discover new things when you have the time.”

Head on over to the for more details and specific suggestions (for your start page). There’s one more suggestion I want to make (as it’s something that I do): Twitter. Instead of just following/reading news from people/accounts that I know are similar to my previously held beliefs, I have sought out those accounts that often discuss the issues from a perspective that is not native to me. This way, I’m able to read about the news from an entirely different perspective and from one that I may not have considered were it not for someone giving words to it.

So, I ask: if you’re a conservative, tell me who are the liberals that you read — if you’re a liberal, tell me who are the conservatives that you read.

John Green’s Crash Course in World History

If it wasn’t clear from my series of “,” I would think that one of on the course would lead one to believe that I enjoy learning. (One might also point to my bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees!) In addition to Prof. Sandel’s course, I’ve also been watching another course online: .

is an author (; ) and one half of the . John and his brother Hank post YouTube videos couched in the form of a conversation to each other. It’s very accessible. Hank has a . There are a number of other dedicated YouTube channels to different things that John & Hank talk about: , , and .

Back to Crash Course World History: , I really think that people should have a basic understanding of world history. If that’s too much to ask, I think that I would like to have a basic understanding of world history. Especially because of my inclination to take a ‘systems perspective to things,’ (look for a post on this soon!) I think that having an understanding of the macrolevel events that led to today can help us (me?) gain a better understanding of where we might be headed in the future. If nothing else, it serves as ‘trial and error’ of what’s happened in the past, so as to avoid (or at least attempt to avoid) doing in the future.

The crash course in World History is not yet complete. John Green posts a new one each week. He intends to post 40 episodes and as of this post, he’s posted only 19. That means, there’s still a lot of world history to get to! Each video is approximately 10 minutes long and there tends to be a lot of information crammed in. One is often encouraged to watch the videos more than once and I must say, I’ve definitely done this.

For those interested, here’s the first episode:



Overconfidence: Know Thyself

On the way to the grocery store this afternoon, I passed through a construction zone. As I was driving by, I glanced over at the work they were doing and remarked, “Oh, it looks like they’re almost finished. They’ll probably be done by the end of the month.” I kept on driving and then laughed out loud. I know nothing about construction and certainly don’t know enough to look at the progress of the job site regarding road reconstruction to be as “confident” as I was in saying they’ll be finished in a month.

Earlier this year, I wrote about lectures I listened to on my trip from . One of those lectures was by Maggie Neale on the subject of negotiation (I highly recommend listening to it!) One of the things she spoke about in this lecture is exemplified by my story about the construction site.

She had a pop bottle full of paperclips and asked the audience to guess how many paperclips were in the bottle. She told them there wasn’t some sort of trick to it and asked them to think up a number. Then, she asked them to come up with a 95% . Meaning, she wanted the people to come up with a range of the number of paperclips that could be in the bottle, such that they could be 95% confident that the number of actual paperclips in the bottle fell within the range. If I recall correctly, she even said something about being certain that there were less than 1,000,000 paperclips in the bottle.

After they were all done, she told them how many paperclips were in the bottle and then polled the audience to find how many people had the actual number of paperclips within their range.About half of the audience raised their hands. Neale went on to say that statistically speaking, only 5% of the audience should have not guessed a range wherein the actual number of paperclips lay. That is, 95% of the audience should have had the actual number of paperclips fall within their range. As only 50% of the audience raised their hands, she went on to explain why.

The explanation for the paperclips is the same explanation as to why I made a guess about the construction site. Humans have a tendency to be confident — nay — overconfident about their judgments (regardless of their accuracy). This is known in some circle as the .

I knew about this particular bias and I still fell into the trap (albeit shortly) of making an overconfident assessment about the construction site. I wonder what judgments you (or maybe your compatriots) are being overconfident about? Now that you know about this particular bias, I hope that you’ll be a bit more mindful when making estimations and the like.

The Unending Wisdom of TEDTalks

For quite some time now, I’ve been accumulating a list of TEDTalks that I wanted to do posts about. Unfortunately, I think the list is growing “out of control.” As such, I thought I would just do a catch-all post to cover some of the more under-discussed TEDTalks. If you’re unfamiliar with TEDTalks, I highly recommend checking out the list of the . There are some really good topics there. In previous , I have discussed other TEDTalks (), and I’m likely to talk about them again in the future. Without further adieu, here are some of the TEDTalks that I think are worth a gander:

– This one was recommended to me by a good friend of mine, likely because of my inclination for a positive disposition about life. There were some interesting statistics about smiling (and health). I highly recommend this to anyone, but especially to those who would rather be gloomy.

– This is a talk I learned of by following the . It was given by one of the passengers on-board the infamous  (the one that landed in the Hudson). Not only was this passenger on-board, he had a front row seat to what was going on as he was in seat 1A. I very much enjoyed his talk. I think my favorite line from his talk: “I’m a collector of bad wines.” If you don’t quite get what he means by this, I’d watch the video.

– As the top comment on the video laments: “Why doesn’t this have more views than Lady Gaga?” Given that there are many ways of learning, I think it’s important that data be represented in many fashions. Rolling has, really, made data interesting (to those who would have otherwise not thought so) and even for those who think that numbers are interesting all by themselves. In an updating post about who I’m following on Twitter, you’ll notice a number of additions of people who are focused on transforming data in chart/graph/etc. form.

– I think I was watching  one night and one of his guests was Salman Khan. I was amazed by what this one guy had put together from simply starting with the intention to help his cousins with mathematics. There are now thousands and thousands of videos teaching students around the world about a range of subjects from the French Revolution to calculus.

– I just had to include this follow-up to one of the . I must say, I am surprised that this video has only garnered about a quarter million views in a year’s time, while his first TEDTalk has more than 2.5 million views.

– Somewhere along the way, I developed an affinity for the brain and brain science (or neuroscience). Things that have to do with the brain fascinate me. Maybe it’s the trillions of intricacies to the brain (I’m a , remember?) In this video, Limb shows the neuroscience behind creativity.

– I’m not necessarily endorsing WikiLeaks (one way or the other), but I believe it can be useful to seek to understand the viewpoint or reasons why someone does something.

– With a title like this, how could I not include this in a list of TEDTalks to watch? I’m in favor of most things that seek to unify the world in peace. In this video, Hunter explains how he attempts to get his 4th-graders to solve the problems of the world. I think this is superbly brilliant! Most of the time, children haven’t been socialized into ways of thinking that can become rigid. It’s useful to allow them to use their unencumbered imagination to work through some of these complicated issues.

There are many more TEDTalks that are worth talking about (both under-viewed and adequately viewed). I invite you to share with us some of your favorite TEDTalks in the comments section.

The Timeless Wisdom of Commencement Speeches

It’s that time of year again (or maybe just after that time) where thousands of students across the world prepare to ‘graduate’ from college/university/high school and move on into a new place in their lives. Invariably, coupled with this rite of passage is some sort of speech given to them by an elder. Someone with wisdom and knowledge. Someone who is charged with the task of (motivating?) these wide-eyed youngsters into an assortment of possibility. I have yet to give a commencement speech (although I can see it happening at some point in the distant future), but I can’t imagine it’s a very easy speech to write/give.

Let me explain. In the audience you have a wide array of people. There are people who are conservative, people who are liberal. There are people who are (older), there are people who are young (some still have yet to full mature into themselves). There are parents, sometimes grandparents. There are siblings. There are people of varying intelligence. There are people at different stages of development and there are people with varying degrees of religiosity. There are people don’t care what you say and there are people who will hang on your every word. I understand that many will say that the characteristics I have described are not that much different from any other audience, but to me, it feels like there’s something different about a commencement audience. Maybe I haven’t quite captured the feeling that I’m trying to describe.

So, even though you might be communicating (specifically) to the graduates, their varying degrees of development, motivation, and aspiration, could make it hard to settle on a singular focus. I think that’s what makes speeches like so good. The wisdom he conveyed was timeless. It’s probably part of the reason why Time ranked it second on their .

Then there are speeches that are more aimed at humor. I found particularly amusing. There are also those (like Poehler’s) that are intended to be humorous and insightful. Some say could have been the best ever (I think that’s a tad overstatement). Even more recently, Stephen Colbert gave what some are calling .

Like the TIME article, you’ll find a variety of sites that have lists of some of the best (or just the ones that year) commencement speeches. There’s this from The Huffington Post and there’s also a list of from ‘Online College Degrees.’ I’m a little surprised to see Jobs’ 2005 speech at the top of this list, but maybe he wasn’t thought to be the speaker that he is today back in 2005.

It seems that this time of year also motivates people (or bloggers) to talk about their favorite commencement speeches of all-time. liked Bono’s speech at UPenn and JK Rowling’s speech at Harvard.

There are also the sites that seem to collect graduation speeches. There’s a of graduation speeches. I’ve also seen sites like that actually have a storehouse of commencement speeches that can be broken down by speaker (politics, business, technology, science, media, arts, sports, and entertainment). I’ve seen some “off-the-beaten path” commencement addresses that I thought were pretty good, but were not talked about by journalists or bloggers (at least that I had seen).

What are some of your favorite commencement speeches? How would you prepare and craft a commencement speech? I think before I sat down to write, I’d want to get some statistics on the class I was speaking to (not just their majors), but if there were a way, I’d want to know where they were going after school (do they already have jobs?) and if possible, maybe see if I could have an assessment of them based on . That might be asking a bit much (AQAL), but it would sure help to set the tone of the language of the speech.

Who Are The Good Guys? Does It Matter?

Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Do you know? I often don’t. The attribution of good and bad is directly related to the narrative in which you consume. If you consume the narrative of X, then X will be the good guys and Y will be the bad guys. If you consume the narrative of Y, then Y will be the good guys and X will be the bad guys. Some may argue that it’s not as simple as all that, but isn’t it? Isn’t it as simple as someone (friend, parent, or media outlet), telling you that something is happening and how it affects you, enough to shape your opinion even without your knowing?

In doing a quick search of “” on Google, it returns nearly 7,000,000 hits — and that’s with the quotations! This question of “who are the good guys” is not something new. Some search for more ‘trivial’ good guys as in the . Others are looking for more historical accounts of . There are even searches for the (and this was back in 1998)! More recently, it’s been inquiry into the and the . Although, there are still people curious about .

A , infinitely quotable, once said: “” And isn’t that the truth? Once the victors move on from the dispute, don’t they then get to write the “textbooks”? In the past, it would have been the stories they told around the fire, but as humans have grown and evolved to include the written word, what often is passed on from generation to generation is the story as told from the “good guys” perspective. That is, the “good guys” being the ones who won. And isn’t that how it always eventually happens? The “good guys” always seem to win, no matter what.

In reading a few history textbooks, I doubt you’ll find stories of the “bad guys” winning. In fact, I doubt you’ll even find many textbooks that offer the perspective of the “bad guys” in much detail, least of all, objectively. The “bad guys” will be painted as “bad guys” who wanted something from the “good guys.” The good guys, being the good guys, of course, triumph! And more history is written where the good guys succeed. There’s a very interesting read on this subject by called: “” I’m not saying that what Loewen has written is the “right” view of history, but it provides a perspective that you may not have otherwise considered.

I wanted to close this post with a couple more quotes. The first, from “:

The history of some is not the history of others. It will be discovered, or at least asserted, that the history of the Saxons after their defeat at the Battle of Hastings is not the same history as the history of the Normans who were the victors in the same battle. It will be learned that one man’s victory is another man’s defeat. . . What looks like right, law, or obligation from the point of view of power looks like the abuse of power, violence, and exaction when it is seen from the viewpoint of the new discourse, just as it does when we go over to the other side. . . the triumph of some means the submission of others.

And finally, a from : “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.