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One Way to Avoid the Confirmation Bias

Commit to generating and testing alternative narratives.

Key points

  • Few people are immune to the .
  • Confirmation bias accounts for many instances of faulty thinking.
  • Our favored stories can shape our thinking more than the facts themselves.
Source: Bengt Nyman/Wikimedia Commons
Robert Lefkowitz
Source: Bengt Nyman/Wikimedia Commons

The confirmation bias is the tendency to favor information confirming our attitudes and values.

Contemporary politics is a prime example, where the use of alternative “facts,” selective media exposure, and the balkanization of social interactions, etc., ensure that many of us easily fortify the apparent validity of our political leanings.

No wonder politics suffers from so much entrenched polarization.

An equal opportunity bias, it cuts across domains of life and types of people.

I came across a particularly instructive example of this bias in a recent memoir by Robert Lefkowitz, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist and physician. He describes a transformative experience from his third year in medical school.

During clinical rounds, one of his fellow trainees presented what appeared to be a convincing diagnosis of a serious case of pulmonary fibrosis. The trainee had assembled the facts of the case into such a sensible narrative that Lefkowitz was “dumbfounded” when the attending physician, Mortimer Bader, said, “OK, good job. Now, Lefkowitz, I want you to use the same facts of the case, but tell me a different story.” (Lefkowitz, 2021, p. 19)

Lefkowitz had found the narrative highly convincing. Put on the spot, he could come with no alternative story. None of the other trainees offered an alternative either.

Bader then proceeded to tell a very different story. He used the same details of the case but weaved an even more compelling narrative suggesting a much less life-threatening diagnosis, that of chronic asthma.

Interestingly, he did not alter the facts of the case. However, he gave some facts more weight and ordered the facts differently.

Bader summed up the lesson in a way that left Lefkowitz “awestruck": “Many people think data tell a story, but nothing could be further from the truth. Data are just data. A story is something you impose on the data.” (Lefkowitz, 2021, p. 19)

What was the ultimate diagnosis? Additional tests were necessary to solve the problem.

Lefkowitz took this lesson to heart. He rewired his approach to becoming a physician. He developed the conscious habit of generating and welcoming alternative narratives to apply to the facts of his clinical cases. He would then examine carefully how the facts fit these multiple narratives. He found this approach even more important in his research career. This was because the sheer amount of data available allowed any story to more easily appear to fit these data.

What does Lefkowitz’s experience tell us?

We think that the facts drive explanations for the events happening around us. However, the favored stories we bring to the event, or those that quickly arise as we learn the facts, powerfully shape how we weight, order, and further select the facts. Perhaps even from the very start, we begin veering away from true understanding.

A solution is to make a conscious pledge to construct multiple provisional narratives. We make permanent friends with a personal devil’s advocate.

Then, honest brokers, we see how the facts align with these alternative narratives.

The story we settle on will be closer to the truth we honor and seek.


Lefkowitz, R., (2021). A funny thing happened on the way to Stockholm. New York, NY: Pegasus Books.

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