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Confirmation Bias and You

I suspect most if not all of us know about the notion that we tend to see what we expect to see, hear what we expect to hear and so on. The idea is that we tend to reframe our experiences to fit with our expectations. We may think that we are always objective but we aren’t.

For example, this is in part why two people can hear the same politician speak and go away with quite different impressions. One of us may think that the politician is a great person who speaks the truth and the other thinks he or she is corrupt and can’t be trusted. The tendency to see the world as conforming to our preconceptions is called “Confirmation Bias.” Let’s shorten that to “CB.”

CB reaches out in other ways when we aren’t expecting it. If we go out for the evening for an expensive meal at a fancy restaurant, we are likely to judge the food to be better than the fair at the corner diner, even if that is not objectively true as judged by experienced food critics. If we buy an expensive watch, we tend to think that it keeps better time than the clock on our microwave, despite that it isn’t true.

If our friends or reviewers tell us that a movie is not very good, we are apt to rate it lower than we rate it when no one has influenced us ahead of time. We tend to rate most anything higher when we experience the brand-name version compared to when we are given a generic or off-brand version.

Here is the point. Quite often and frequently unconsciously, our opinions, judgements and perspectives are shaped by other people, circumstances and past experiences and expectations that we are not aware of. CB is real and influences all of us at times. If you are feeling skeptical, consider star ratings that we see for products and experiences such as movies and restaurants. You know about star ratings such as 1 star up to 5 stars. The reality is that they are objectively not very reliable and are easily manipulated by groups and individuals who benefit from high or sometimes from low ratings. We know that they are at best just opinions and at worst statistical garbage. Even so, we still look at them and at least partially make our purchase decisions based on them. What you may not know is that we also base our satisfaction with the product, service or experience to some extent on those star ratings.

So far, CB is likely not that big of a deal. But a big deal it can quickly become. For the most part, those little external shoves and nudges from friends, star ratings, advertising, circumstances and our limited self awareness keep us from being fully objective and self-directing but generally don’t lead us too far astray.

CB becomes a much more serious issue when dealing with people, when dealing with new or novel situations, when objectivity matters. Unfortunately, it works like this.

Whenever we need to interact with someone, do something we haven’t done before, have a new experience, we are mostly incapable of being open minded, unable to approach the person or situation free from prejudging, without opinion or expectation. That by itself would not be all that much of a problem were it not for CB. Confirmation bias leads us to focus on and value everything that confirms the opinion or perspective we already have and ignore or devalue the importance of everything that conflicts or negates those opinions and perspectives. Take away our confirmation bias and we would make better choices, better decisions, and our judgment and actions would be more accurate, more appropriate. In short, we would be more likely to succeed and less likely to misread, misinterpret, less likely to screw up.

So what to do? Since we can’t totally avoid CB, we need to start by acknowledging that we are never completely open minded and objective. We just aren’t. That means that along with noticing and accepting whatever supports and confirms our expectation, we should also accept and value whatever is inconsistent with or contradicts those expectations. Let’s briefly consider a couple of examples.

When the Republicans encourage us to value secure borders, thriving big business and individual responsibility for personal health, safety and well being, they have a valid point. When the Democrats encourage us to value sanctuary, international cooperation and collective responsibility for personal life, liberty and happiness for all of us, they have a point. Most everything strongly believed by either side includes a large grain of truth and justice. Just as neither side is completely right, neither is completely wrong.

The principle also applies to people and relationships. For the most part, our friends, family members, coworkers, colleagues and neighbors are not without both positives and negatives, good qualities and tendencies that would test the patience of a saint. Until we can appreciate all aspects, we have no claim to objectivity or fairness.

Can any of us suspend our preconceptions, prior expectations and biases completely enough to justify seeing ourselves as objective? No, we likely cannot. Even so, I suspect we all – including me and you – can do more to recognize and better suppress the confirmation bias we all have every day with most people and in most situations. We can get in the habit of asking ourselves if we are misjudging, misinterpreting, mistaken, or perhaps just plain wrong about what we think, believe or expect. Will we thus become objective and more reasonable and appropriate? Probably not but we sure won’t get there if we don’t at least try.

Now you know so there you go.