Confirmation Bias — We Like What We Know [Mental Model]

I was at the airport waiting for my flight and CNN happened to be on…

I hate watching the news because it just feels like a few stories strung out for way too long. I can only handle the threat of the world crumbling under Trump for so long each day.

After I had it up to my eyeballs in scary stories, I went in search of a burger. I ended up hunting down the Sam’s Crispy Chicken with the special sauce from Umami Burger, and realized that Fox News was playing in front of me…The struggle to find peace in an airport is real I tell you.

Bite after bite, I was inundated with news that was the complete opposite of what CNN was saying.  I was thinking, how could this be?  How could two respectable (-ish?) news organizations view the world so differently?

Then I remembered what Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert) said: we all have our own movies playing in our heads based on our past experiences.  

Welcome to the wild world of Confirmation Bias…

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Do We Believe Only What We Want to Believe?

We differ in how we see the world because we grew up differently.  Since we are a product of our individual experiences, any new information presented to us has to pass through our individual mental filter.

Our brains evolved to be able to make quick decisions based on information that’s available to us. To be quick, we have to fill in the gaps with our beliefs, assumptions, and experiences that helped us get to where we are in life.

And therein lies the problem. We favor viewpoints that helped us get to where we are, even if they aren’t right.  We also HATE changing them…

We favor viewpoints that helped us get to where we are, even if they aren’t right. Click To Tweet

We’d much rather keep things comfortable and the same.  It’s this wishful thinking for stability that makes any new information that disagrees with us fall on our mind’s deaf ears.

The Battle of the Bubbles

Everyone lives in a bubble of their own making, whether you live in a big city, the suburbs, or a rural area.

These bubbles are further propagated by our news channel choices.

You would think that more news choice is a good thing because it ups the bar for quality journalism. The exact opposite is happening.

Anyone can put their opinion out there and find groups of people who love that message and will continue to consume it. With more eyeballs, more ads get played and the news channel makes more money.  Who cares if it ruins our prosperity in the long term…right?

How do we solve this problem? One option would be to wait for old-school journalism to come back into vogue, but that’s not within our control. Better options might be just forcing yourself to be exposed to news channels you disagree with so at least you see what the other majority of the nation might be thinking.

The last option might be testing out a more middle of the road news organization like the Associated Press or Reuters.

The Earth Is Flat

One of the most interesting cases of Confirmation Bias is the Flat Earth conspiracy. Yes…there are people who still believe the Earth is flat…

We know that Pythagoras solved this problem around 500 BC, but I guess it still takes time for good ideas to sink in with certain folks.

With so much evidence proving the Earth is an oblate spheroid, how could people think otherwise?

There must be multiple factors, but Confirmation Bias has to be one of the main ones. When round evidence is presented to a flat earther, it doesn’t register with them. They believe their part of a group that “knows better” and that these scientists are spreading around false information.

It’d probably be easier to just raise funds and ship them into space and let them see it for themselves. Maybe then they’ll change their minds…but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

How Do We Protect Ourselves From Confirmation Bias?

Understanding Confirmation Bias is the first step to defending against it.

But don’t get too boastful in our new abilities. Even if we know what it is, that doesn’t mean we’re immune. Detecting Confirmation Bias in ourselves is a slow process. One in which we’ll need to take steps to understand our thinking and course correct when necessary.

What’s the easiest way to do this?

For big events that don’t go our way, we need to write them down. Include any assumptions, feelings, or beliefs that caused us to believe something was going to happen one way and see where we were steered away from what really happened.

Imagine your last relationship ended due to a partner cheating on you. Some of you might not have to imagine this, and I’m sorry for that!

Before you caught them, your view of the relationship looked way different than afterward, right?

You probably went back and filtered all your interactions through the lens of being cheated on, which makes sense.

But if you go FORWARD and filter all future relationships through that lens, even when there is no credible evidence, you’re training your mind to look for reasons you might get cheated on.

This could cause you to ruin a perfectly good relationship because you can’t see anything but nefarious motives in your partner’s actions.

Actionable Nugget

Practice testing your beliefs.

Who in your social circle do you disagree with?

Try having a non-emotional discussion or debate with that person and see how they came up with their belief. This could be religious, political, or maybe even how to raise kids.

Just set some ground rules first. I don’t want you to lose a friend over this. Say upfront that this is just for fun and that no one is right or wrong. You are just doing this because you want to see if your belief can stand up to some honest debate.

You never know, maybe your viewpoint can be updated a bit. Don’t be afraid to change your mind if necessary.

Stay Thought-Full.

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