Confirmation Bias

Big Steve had a nice post on confirmation bias somewhat recently, and I’ve been a little slow to offer my own take on it.  He linked to this really nice post on it that you should read in full (though, I know you won’t):

If you are thinking about buying a new car, you suddenly see people driving them all over the roads. If you just ended a long-time relationship, every song you hear seems to be written about love. If you are having a baby, you start to see them everywhere.

Confirmation bias is seeing the world through a filter, thinking selectively.

The examples above are a sort of passive version of the phenomenon. The real trouble begins when confirmation bias distorts your active pursuit of facts.

Punditry is a whole industry built on confirmation bias.

Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and Arianna Huffington, Rachel Maddow and Ann Coulter – these people provide fuel for beliefs, they pre-filter the world to match existing world-views.

If their filter is like your filter, you love them. If it isn’t, you hate them.

Whether or not pundits are telling the truth, or vetting their opinions, or thoroughly researching their topics is all beside the point. You watch them not for information, but for confirmation.

As a political psychologist, I’ve long been aware of this bias, but I actually found it to be most problematic in our criminal justice system when teaching my course on criminal justice this past spring.  So much of the flaws in our system– especially as manifested in wrongful convictions– come down to confirmation bias.  Once police and prosecutors suspect somebody, they keep looking for every piece of information and rarely, if ever, for information that might prove they are wrong.  If you only look for one type of information, of course, that is what you are most likely to find.

Though, I know I fall prey to this bias, I suspect it is not nearly as much as the proverbial next guy.  Actually, I think being a social scientist is great training to learn to counter-act this bias in one’s thinking.  In every single thing I research and publish, I have to consider the counter arguments to my hypothesis.  What evidence might actually prove what I’m doing is wrong, and then show that this is not the case.   That’s exactly how one gets past the confirmation bias.  I’m sure I don’t do this in my “ordinary life” as much as I should, but I do think that it develops as a habit of mind to a considerable degree.  So, the rest of you out there, :-), watch out for it.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Confirmation Bias

  1. John says:

    Wait, why am I reading this post?

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