Stephen Novella has written an interesting piece about confirmation bias as it relates to politics, Moderating Political Opinions. What he has to say applies to many other areas of life including conversations about theology and our faith experiences. Novella begins his discussion recounting findings from recent experiments conducted by psychologists. He summarizes their findings here:
... The researchers interpret all of this as the action of confirmation bias – a core cognitive bias that motivates people to seek out and notice information that confirms existing beliefs and either ignore or dismiss evidence against their existing beliefs or in favor of a competing belief. Confirmation bias is the default mode of human thinking – the cognitive pathway of least resistance that we will tend to follow. If you force people to slow down and think harder, even in a manner tangential to the question at hand, confirmation bias is moderated by deeper evaluation. However – deeper evaluation takes cognitive energy, and if you deprive subjects of this energy by giving them another task to perform, then the default mode of confirmation bias takes hold. ...
How do we overcome confirmation bias?
... Imagine if students were systematically educated to engage abstract thinking and to ward off the effects of confirmation bias (and other biases) when considering important issues (or all issues, for that matter). This, in essence, is scientific skepticism. Skeptics are those who do not simply flow down the path of least resistance, giving in to the lowest energy state of thought, surrendering to cognitive entropy. Skepticism is about understanding the nature of cognitive biases and then doing the hard mental work of thinking complexly and abstractly about important questions.
The trigger for skeptical evaluation needs to be internal. In this way being a skeptic is partly just a habit of thought. The skeptic stops and asks, “wait a minute, is this really true?” When confronting an opposing opinion or interpretation of the evidence, the skeptic tries to understand the various points of view and will at least try to fairly assess each point, recognizing that many topics are complex, with good and bad points on all sides.
Being a skeptic is also about applying the findings of decades of psychological research to our everyday lives. It is a shame that psychologists have conducted thousands of experiments carefully describing the many ways in which human thinking is biased, and yet public awareness of this useful body of knowledge is limited. ...
It is impossible to escape confirmation bias. Fortunately, most of the time, our imprecise understanding is close enough. And in many cases, even where our understanding is way off, the consequences aren’t that significant. Yet in some cases, confirmation bias can be deadly.
Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people. Many people believe minorities and the poor were disproportionately represented among the fatalities. But Amanda Ripley points out in The Unthinkable that this was not true. The disproportionately affected demographic was the elderly. Why? Because many of them had weathered hurricanes in the past. They “knew” they could weather this one as well. They discounted information that suggested otherwise. By the time they learned they were wrong it was too late.
We can't avoid confirmation bias altogether. Our brains are wired to find patterns in our experiences that will inform us in future decisions. We often see patterns that aren't there, or at least as strongly there as we imagine. We simply don't have the capacity to pause and scrupulously analyze every issue or decision that presents itself. But we do need to be especially diligent about confirmation bias when something significant is at stake. This could be a financial decision, a job decision, or a decision that deeply affects relationships. Politics and religion are two topics that frequently have such an impact. This is especially true when there is conflict. I suggest we need to do at least the following:
- Strive to be conscious of our own logic and emotions driving us toward a particular conclusion.
- Make time to truly focus on the issues at hand and resist being emotionally hijacked during deliberation.
- Restrain our impulse to declare someone ignorant or malicious because they hold a different position. Assume positive intent until there is strong evidence to the contrary.
- Enter each discussion with a personal committment to having a positive experience.
- Ask questions. Read and listen to alternative views. Seek to know other positions well enough that when we explain a position to a person who holds that position that they will affirm our description.
- Be in community with others who don’t share some of our most cherished views. It helps us to hear others more fully. This type of community will continually remind us that there are decent reasonable people who do not see the world the way we do.
- As the hymn says, in all we do, "Guard each person's dignity and save each person's pride." (And sometimes that means when they are not returning the favor.)
- Undergird this all with prayer for insight. Pray that God will bring clarity to everyone involved.
I have a follow-up post on this topic tomorrow but for now I have a few questions. When have you discovered confirmation bias in your own thinking? Do you agree with the list of practices above? What would you add?