The problem of confirmation bias

Here is a strange fact about human beings: we tend to look for evidence to support the things we already believe, and we tend to screen out or discredit evidence that contradicts our beliefs. The scientific term for this phenomenon is confirmation bias. It’s not hard to find examples of this, especially as of this writing, during an election cycle. For instance, let’s say Fred is watching the news, and he learns the economy added 163,000 new jobs in the second quarter of 2012 (which it did), but the unemployment rate actually rose to 8.3 percent (which it did, as well). Now, if Fred is a member of the same political party as the president, then he is likely to say to himself, “Hey, a hundred and sixty-three thousand jobs, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Obviously, the president’s plan is working, and things are getting back on track.” On the other hand, if Fred is a member of a different party than the president, he is likely to say to himself, “A hundred and sixty-three thousand jobs doesn’t mean squat if unemployment actually rose. It’s time to vote that bum out of office!”

In the above case, Fred is using the information at hand to confirm his beliefs in the rightness of his political stance. This tendency is most evident around opinions and beliefs that are emotionally charged, such as politics, religion, and issues like gun control and abortion. We interpret evidence in such a way that our beliefs are upheld and validated. There’s nothing terribly surprising about this, and a good deal of the time, no harm comes of it. But there are times when it can be problematic, as we shall see.

The opposite of confirmation bias is the scientific method. The scientific method holds that a hypothesis or belief must be either supported by empirical evidence, or it must be abandoned or modified. In other words, it must be proven to be true or false, and it doesn’t matter how attached one is to the hypothesis. A scientist might really want his hypothesis to be true, but if it’s not, then it’s back to the drawing board. Occasionally, scientists will be so attached to a particular hypothesis that they will skew the results of an experiment to support their belief, but this is usually found out, and that’s the end of the line for that particular batch of scientists.

So how does confirmation bias relate to the field of psychology? I’m glad you asked. Among all the beliefs we hold, some of the most powerful are the beliefs we hold about our selves. As I have said in a previous post, a tremendous amount of unhappiness is caused by some variation of the belief that there is something wrong with me. Again: no one is born thinking this. It is something we learn to believe as we grow up – or not. The opposite belief could be stated simply as I am okay. In my experience, people tend to have either one belief or the other. And if one is unfortunate and learns to believe the former, then she will tend to look for evidence that supports that belief, and to screen out or find a way to invalidate evidence that contradicts it.

Let’s look at the example of Sharon. Sharon was born to parents who were very different from each other in some important ways. Sharon’s father was a reasonably good parent – not perfect, but loving, kind, and emotionally available to his kid. Sharon’s mother was different – moody, emotionally distant, and critical of her child. The consistent message she delivered to Sharon was, “Nothing you do is good enough for me,” although not once did she say it in those exact words.

Like all kids, until she reached about age six, Sharon was ego-centric, which means she believed the world revolved around her. This is fine, if everything is going okay in a child’s world, but not so great if there are problems. In that case, the child will naturally assume the problems are her fault. No one has to say this to her – she will reach that conclusion on her own. As a young child, Sharon did not yet have the ability to look at her mother and say, “Gosh, mom sure is emotionally distant and critical. She seems like a very unhappy person. I wonder what her childhood was like?” Instead, Sharon explained her mother’s behavior toward her with the most readily available explanation: “I must be doing something wrong.” This is the way kids think. Naturally, Sharon tried to correct her behavior in order to win her mother’s approval, but nothing seemed to work, so after years of this, her thinking progressed from “I must be doing something wrong,” to, “There must be something fundamentally wrong with me.”

Now, around age thirteen or so, Sharon is developing critical reasoning skills, which includes the ability to regard information with skepticism. This is a very important skill for all adults. However, by now, seeds have been planted deep in Sharon’s mind, and she has learned to believe that she is a flawed, inadequate human being. This is where confirmation bias becomes evident. Because she desperately wants her mother’s love, she has become an excellent student. She is making straight A’s, in the hopes that her mother will recognize her efforts and give her praise and approval. Not only does this strategy not work, but when others recognize Sharon’s achievements and comment on them, she tells herself that they don’t really mean what they are saying, because she’s really not that smart. “They’re just saying nice things about me because they feel sorry for me, or they want something from me,” she thinks. All the straight A’s, all the praise from teachers, all the scholarship applications in the mail, mean nothing to her. Any information that suggests she is a smart, capable person is discounted, and every mistake she makes is seized upon as further evidence that she is dumb, or worthless, or a nuisance.

It might be that Sharon lives her whole life with her negative self-image. She might become an over-achiever, and look like she is on top of the world to everyone else, but all her achievements will not have the desired effect of convincing herself that she is finally good enough. Or she might give up and stop trying, and spend her life without ever coming close to her potential, thereby realizing the ultimate confirmation of her belief that she was a screw-up all along. Or, her unhappiness might drive her to seek help. With help, she might come to realize that not everything she learned to believe about herself is Truth. She might embark on a long and sometimes difficult journey of healing and self-discovery. She might free herself from the shackles of her past, and break out of the prison of doubt and criticism that was never hers to begin with. She might realize the need to grieve the loss of the mother that she didn’t have, and maybe even learn to forgive the one she did.

Which path do you want for Sharon? Are you rooting for her to find happiness? If so, good for you. But here’s another question: How much do you identify with Sharon? What is your belief system about yourself? Are you worth the trouble it would take to get rid of all the old baggage that holds you back? Might I suggest an answer: You’re freaking-A right you are. If it’s good enough for Sharon, it’s good enough for you. You qualify for such an outcome simply by being a member of the human race, and that’s the only qualification you will ever need. You are worth it. And that’s the Truth.


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