Beware of the Perils of Confirmation Bias
Not accepting information that challenges preconceived beliefs.
Posted Jul 09, 2018
What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” — Warren Buffett
Charlie: If you’re like me you’ve often been mystified by others (including your primary partner) who appear to be unable to accept the reasonable and obvious point of view that you’re offering them in regard to a subject on which you don’t see eye to eye. It can seem at times that when dealing with such a person they are immune to your efforts to persuade them to reconsider their perspective, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that your perspective is the more accurate of the two. And sometimes, even when mounting evidence proves your point of view to be the more correct one, they still have resistance to accepting what has become (at least to you), irrefutably true.
For many years it was a mystery to me how an otherwise intelligent, rational, and open-minded person like Linda could possibly not see the validity of the point that I was attempting to get her to see. That is, until I finally awakened to the very real possibility that I could be, and had been, in the exact same position with Linda that she had been with me, and that she had in all likelihood, experienced the same kind of frustration and mystification at my intransigence that I had with hers.
As it turns out there is a term for this phenomenon, The term is “confirmation bias” and it refers to the tendency to be irrationally resistant to accepting information that challenges one’s preconceived views or beliefs in a given situation. Confirmation bias shows up not only in the context of relationships, but in a wide range of life domains including business, politics, sports, religion, and any aspect of life where it is possible to possess opinions and views, which includes just about everything.
Studies have shown that once someone has made an initial judgment or opinion about something, there is a strong tendency to reaffirm that assessment by intentionally seeking out evidence that will confirm or reinforce that point of view and to deny or intentionally avoid considering any evidence to the contrary. Once we have formed an opinion, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting input that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our preconceived beliefs. Consequently we become prisoners of our assumptions, unable to reassess our perspective.
The obvious pitfall to being held hostage to a belief is that we lose the motivation to gather or even be open to accepting new information, even when doing so may help us to update assumptions that may no longer be accurate or valid. Confirmation bias often leads to the creation of self-fulfilling prophecies that occur when we act in accordance with beliefs and expectations that we are attached to, and unknowingly create results affirm those beliefs, thus reinforcing our prejudices.
For example, in the early days of our marriage I characterized Linda as someone who was motivated by a desire to get me to take responsibility for meeting her needs, particularly her emotional needs. Having been somewhat “commitment-phobic” and possessive of my freedom in those days, I was hypersensitive to anything that Linda would do or say that smelled like she was infringing on my independence and would often respond to her with defensiveness or antagonism. These reactions unsurprisingly would activate and reinforce her beliefs about me, that I was insufficiently committed to our relationship and trigger efforts on her part to coerce me into giving her reassurance and promises that I was indeed committed.
Feeling trapped in a cycle in which I had two bad options: (1) try to convince her that I was deeply committed which at the time was the last thing that I felt like I wanted to be, or (2) tell the truth and admit that the doubt that Linda had about my commitment level was justified since in fact I DID have serious considerations about losing my freedom, particularly when I didn’t feel reassured that Linda was NOT out to get me to take care of her on her terms.
The real problem was that we both were right about each other’s underlying feelings, motivations and intentions. The problem was that our confirmation biases were preventing each of us from being open to hearing the other’s concerns and needs because doing so would cause us to challenge our preconceived beliefs about ourselves as being the innocent party and the other the guilty one. The need to be right about who were are and what we believe to be “true” is compelling because the consequence to being wrong is that we are guilty as charged, and therefore subject to punishment for failing to be the person that we want to see ourselves and want others to see us as being. The other problem in taking this stance is that the price that we pay for being the “innocent” victim is that we are left feeling powerless and resentful.
Linda was correct in questioning the nature of my commitment. I was more committed to the person that I wanted to see myself as being and the person I wanted others to see me as, than I was to our relationship. That intention blinded me to the possibility of being honest with myself or with Linda about the validity of her accusations. She of course was involved in the same kind of self-deception and was unwilling to reveal that at least a part of her underlying motivations in the relationship DID have to do with wanting me to take care of her.
There were of course other motivations that we each had that were more honorable and virtuous, and there was real and genuine love between us. But our inability to be open to consider some of the shadow aspects of our desires and intentions due to each of our confirmation biases kept us in a closed loop of defensiveness and antagonism which characterized our relationship for a longer period of time than I care to admit to.
The good news is that we did manage to eventually work our way out of that awful closed loop and ultimately found both the freedom and commitment that we were both longing for. While I was busy proving that I was right about my beliefs about Linda and she was busy being right about her beliefs about me, we were both too preoccupied with our need to discredit the other person’s view of us to be able to see the truth in it. Once we were able to free ourselves of the tyranny of our confirmation biases, were became able to see the truth on both sides of the equation and in doing so see both sides of ourselves. Doing so took some hard work and it didn’t happen overnight, but that’s a story for another time.
What matters is that if we could do it, then so can you. Beliefs, regardless of how much confirmation we’ve given them, can always be subject to reconsideration, and they should be, since beliefs, like so many other things in life can, and sometimes should, change as circumstances change and new knowledge and information becomes available.
Being a permanent prisoner of confirmation bias involves the greatest loss of all: the loss of the freedom to make conscious, responsible choices for our own life based upon trustworthy, informed, and accurate information, rather than conditioned beliefs that may no longer be valid or relevant to our current reality. Like the bumper sticker says, “Don’t believe everything you think!”