Confirmation Bias

When we are in the grasp of an illusion – or, for that matter, whenever we have a new idea – instead of searching for ways to prove our ideas wrong, we usually attempt to prove them correct. Psychologists call this the confirmation bias, and it presents a major impediment to our ability to break free from the misinterpretation of randomness.

As philosopher Francis Bacon put it in 1620, “the human understanding, once it has adopted an opinion, collects any instances that confirm it, and though the contrary instances may be more numerous and more weighty, it either does not notice them or else rejects them, in order that this opinion will remain unshaken.”

To make matters worse, not only do we preferentially seek evidence to confirm our preconceived notions, but we also interpret ambiguous evidence in favor of our ideas. This can be a big problem because data are often ambiguous, so by ignoring some patterns and emphasizing others, our clever brains can reinforce their beliefs even in the absence of convincing data. For instance, if we conclude, based on flimsy evidence, that a new neighbor is unfriendly, then any future actions that might be interpreted in that light stand out in our minds, and those that don’t are easily forgotten. 

Thus even random patterns can be interpreted as compelling evidence if they relate to our preconceived notions. The confirmation bias has many unfortunate consequences in the real world. When a teacher initially believes that one student is smarter than another, he selectively focuses on evidence that tends to confirm the hypothesis. When an employer interviews a prospective candidate, the employer typically forms a quick first impression and spends the rest of the interview seeking information that supports it. When interpret the behavior of someone who is a member of a minority, they interpret it in the context of preconceived stereotypes.

The human brain has evolved to be very efficient at pattern recognition, but as the confirmation bias shows, we are focused on finding and confirming patterns rather than minimizing our false conclusions. Yet we needn’t be pessimists, for it is possible to overcome our prejudices. It is a start simply to realize that chance events, too, produce patterns. It is another great step if we learn to question our perceptions and our theories. Finally, we should learn to spend as much time looking for evidence that we are wrong as we spend searching for reasons we are correct.

Full Disclaimer: I am not a financial planner. The views expressed in this post are all mine and they may or may not suit your needs. Please do you own due diligence. I do not make money on any of the products suggested in this post. 


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