## 13 Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is strengthened with time since the longer you believe something, the more time there is to collect evidence as support and the less willing you are to let go of the idea because people grow attached to ideas (Johnson, 1987). Furthermore, not only does increased time increase the effects of confirmation bias, increased status level can also increase the probability of confirmation bias occurring (Ridley, 2012). For example, if the CEO of a large company believes that a certain new program will help increase efficiency in the employees, the CEO is likely to believe this program will work when given far fewer pieces of evidence than if a lower-level manager comes up with the same idea. This makes sense because the CEO’s knowledge of his/her own seniority causes the CEO to be more confident in his/her intelligence and therefore searches for less confirming evidence for this idea and even less possible contradicting evidence.

Additionally, confirmation bias contributes to exaggerating probabilities because when you accumulate evidence in your mind that supports your hypothesis, you can think something is much more probable than it actually is (Kahneman, 2011). For example, if you get picked last for teams in gym class one day, you will probably remember that and might even develop some insecurities about yourself. Then, if it happens a second time, you will really start to remember these instances. From there, you could start to develop the idea that you always get picked last for teams in gym class. While this may not actually be true, it may seem accurate in your mind since you can remember more instances of getting picked last than not since these occurrences confirm your existing hypothesis; the confirmation bias then makes you overestimate the probability of getting picked last for teams.

The Complication

Examples of Confirmation Bias

One example of confirmation bias involved a study done by a psychologist named Peter Wason where a teacher knew a “mystery rule” and children were given a few examples of values that followed the rule. The children then had to try to discover the rule by guessing values and the teacher would tell them whether or not those values followed the rule or not. The students were then allowed to propose a possible rule and the teacher would tell them if their hypothesis was correct. This study showed confirmation bias because once the children had identified a possible rule, they kept guessing values that would confirm their hypothesis and failed to suggest numbers that could disprove their hypothesis. Also, they seemed to guess fairly complicated rules for the mystery equation because since this was a sort of game, they expected the mystery rule to be somewhat complex — this turned out to be very far off from the article’s first mystery rule because that rule was simply that the numbers appeared in increasing order (Johnson, 1987).

Another example was the case of nurses and administering medication to patients. In their day-to-day routine, nurses give out many medications, many of which look similar in appearance and/or packaging. This can be problematic because nurses may administer the incorrect medication because they are so used to getting them that they are more likely to fall prey to confirmation bias. In general, a nurse knows that he/she need to give out a certain type of drug to a certain patient. The nurse probably associates the specific drug with a certain category of drugs, a certain label, or type of packaging. With these preconceived notions in mind, the nurse goes to pick out the drug and accidentally picks the wrong one. This can happen because since the nurse had an idea in his/her mind, he/she was simply looking for information that corroborated that idea. So if he/she was looking for a certain type of drug which is usually packaged in a white box with red labeling, he/she will be looking for that, and may overlook the slight differences between different drugs that have similar packaging (Davis, 1994). This is an especially relevant example of confirmation bias because mistakes as a result of this error can potentially be fatal, given the variability of medication and the precision required for effective treatment.

Suggestions for Combating Confirmation Bias

People in general — not just scientists — shouldn’t be afraid to look for opposing arguments and evidence. These can make your own argument stronger, as long as you structure your ideas well. For example, you could bring up an opposing argument and point out exactly where its logic fails or where there is inadequate evidence. You should then immediately follow this by showing how, in your idea, the logic holds or that there is adequate evidence, so you undermine their ideas while strengthening support for your own through the comparison.

From the problem solving example, (involving teachers, children, and a mystery rule) one suggestion is that people should seek “positive” AND “negative” information (Johnson 1987). Positive information refers to data that will confirm a hypothesis, while negative information refers to evidence that will disprove the hypothesis. People naturally seek out positive information, but obtaining negative information is also beneficial because then you know that the current hypothesis is incorrect and you must adapt it accordingly, or possibly even restart your thinking from a completely new perspective.

From the article “Giving Debiasing Away…”, we learn more about the relevance of combating confirmation bias. This source argues that people who are more aware of biases and who consciously aim to reduce their own biases are less likely to believe in extremist ideas since they are more well informed and therefore in a better position to be making judgments/assessments of ideas and concepts (Lilienfeld, Ammirati, & Landfield, 2009). This source differs a bit from the previously referenced sources because it addresses the effects of changing the way that you think, rather than simply explain examples of the bias occurring. By discussing the effects of combating confirmation bias in a humanitarian light, this source encourages people to try to think and behave with less influence from biases because it offers the possibility that the world benefits greatly from conscientious people who take time to reduce cognitive errors.

Since cognitive errors are innate, they may seem difficult to correct; however, there are ways that people can work to overcome their negative influence. To start, people should try to be aware of their own ideas and concepts and try to truly examine the basis upon which they have been founded. In general, you should be able to come up with evidence for and against your beliefs. If you can’t think of anything that contradicts your thoughts, you should actively seek out evidence that will so you can have a more well-rounded perspective from which to make more accurate assessments. You may be suffering from confirmation bias, but exposing yourself to contradicting evidence and ideas can help you challenge your beliefs and develop more informed ideas.

References

Bell, L. (2012, August 14). Confirmation Bias: Why Both Sides Of The Global Warming Debate Are Nearly Always Right. Retrieved October 6, 2015.

Davis, N. M. (1994). Med Errors: Combating Confirmation Bias. The American Journal of                       Nursing, 94(7), 17–17. http://doi.org/10.2307/3464683

Johnson, J. E. (1987). Do You Think You Might Be Wrong? Confirmation Bias in Problem Solving. The Arithmetic Teacher, 34(9), 13–16. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41194223

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 80-81, 324, 333). New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Ammirati, R., & Landfield, K.. (2009). Giving Debiasing Away: Can                                Psychological Research on Correcting Cognitive Errors Promote Human Welfare?. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(4), 390–398. Retrieved from http://                                  www.jstor.org/stable/40645706

Ridley, M. (2012, July 20). When Bad Theories Happen to Good Scientists. Retrieved October 29, 2015 .