Tag Archives: Probability

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:

Perspective and the Framing Effect: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 5

Since I was going to talk about the framing effect last week (and opted for the planning fallacy instead because of circumstances), I thought I’d get into the framing effect this week. The framing effect is a very easy bias to understand, in that it’s not as complicated in its description as some of the other biases are. In short, the framing effect is how people can react differently to choices depending on whether the circumstances are presented as gains or losses.

The famous example of the framing effect comes from a paper by Kahneman (who I’ve mentioned before) and Tversky in 1981:

Problem 1: Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. [72 percent]

If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. [28 percent]

As you can see from the percentages in brackets, people opted for the sure thing. Now, let’s look at the second part of this study:

If Program C is adopted 400 people will die. [22 percent]

If Program D is adopted there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. [78 percent]

Did you notice something? Program C is identical to Program A, and yet the percentage of people who were opting for Program C dropped tremendously! Similarly, notice that Program D’s percentage went way up — even though it’s the same thing as Program B. This is the framing effect in action. Is it frightening to you that we’re so susceptible to changing our mind based simply on how a choice is framed? If it’s not, it certainly should be.

Ways for Avoiding the Framing Effect

1) Reframe the question

It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t consider “reframing” the frame with which they are looking at a situation. For instance, in the example from earlier, instead of looking at it as a choice between Program A and Program B, someone could reframe Program A so that it looks like Program C and do the same with Program B, so that it looks like Program D. As a result, one would then be getting a “fuller” picture of their choice.

2) Empathy — assume someone else’s perspective

Many choices implicate another in a situation. As a result, it might be worth it to put yourself in the shoes of that other person to see how they would view a given situation. This is similar to the reframe, but is more specific in that it might serve to help the person remove themselves a little bit from the decision. That is, when we’re faced with a choice, our personal biases can have a big impact on the decision we make. When we imagine how someone else might make this decision, we’re less likely to succumb to our personal biases.

3) Parse the question

Some questions present us with a dichotomous choice: are apples good or bad? Should we exercise in the morning or the evening? Are gap years helpful or harmful? When faced with a question like this, I would highly recommend parsing the question. That is, are we sure that apples can only be good or bad? Are we sure that exercising in the morning or the evening are our only options? Often times, answers to questions aren’t simply this or that. In fact, more times than not, there is a great deal of grey area. Unfortunately, when the question is framed in such a way, it makes it very difficult to see the possibility of the grey area.

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