Confirmation bias exists within all of us. It can be recognized in a few different ways: in the tendency to seek information that confirms our existing beliefs, the pull to interpret new information in those same ways, and by forming beliefs through the use of stereotyping and overgeneralizing our own specific experiences. This inclination leads to ignoring, forgetting, or devaluing information that does not align with what we think we know to be true. Have you ever wondered why it feels so critical to hold onto our current positions so firmly, even after encountering conflicting data? Why do challenges to them elicit a defensive and sometimes angry response in people?
It is in our nature to seek understanding, organization and belonging in our lives that allows us to feel secure and comfortable. We gravitate toward behaviors or thinking patterns that create that environment for us. When we do not have it, we feel threatened and work to restore it. What we hold as out truths are a significant piece of that. These views and convictions are dear to us because they help us navigate ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Our unique set of ideals provides a framework for the ways we live and interact in all areas of life. The need for guidance and our innate need to belong are reasons we often connect with communities and groups that share our beliefs. A like-minded community offers even greater assurance that our ideals are okay, and thus we are okay.
If our framework is a structure composed of our principles, anything we view as a threat to it can shake our sense of security. When we protect ourselves by narrowing our perspectives, it can convince us that ours is the only and absolute truth that is possible. The drives to feel safe and avoid fear encourage the thinking patterns and behaviors consistent with confirmation bias. In response, we work to avoid the discomfort by way of finding the evidence that affirms us, making everything okay again. Interestingly, the greater the fear a person feels, the greater the need to hold tightly to their current worldviews, and the more intense feelings and responses are likely to arise when challenged. On the most extreme end of this spectrum people may embrace beliefs that cause harm to themselves and others, such as in cult-like affiliations.
While it is true that confirmation bias itself cannot be eliminated, the effects can be mitigated. Learning what biases are, identifying our own, as well as the ways they show up for us can increase awareness for ourselves and others, while decreasing the negative implications they carry. Each of us is responsible for assessing our own engagement in any of the telling signs. We can also help neutralize situations when someone else’s fearful response causes defensiveness in us. Instead of irritation, we can notice the fear rising on both sides and lower the need to defend our own convictions. We may even be able to extend some compassion.
Next time you feel anger rising when someone you encounter is determined to tell you how right they are, take the opportunity to practice recognizing their anger and passion as fear. They may very well continue expressing their point; however, you may feel less inclined to engage, and that can make a difference.
Carrie Niles, MA, LPCC
Individual and Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth and Families