How Confirmation Bias Will Limit You

One night I was at a dinner party, engaged in a conversation with someone about veganism. He told me he wanted to start hunting for game, since it was less harmful to the environment and his personal health compared to factory farmed animal products.

A vegan woman at the table chimed in. “I can support that”.

Imagine that. Someone who lives their life based on causing as little harm to animals as possible can sit at a table with a hunter and not get triggered by them. On the contrary, she can support their decision.

There are way too many overzealous people out there slinging dogmatic beliefs at one another, falsely believing that their own respective way of living is the only way to live. Some examples include:

- People who think that everyone who supports Donald Trump is an uneducated white supremacist.

- People who think Veganism is an insult to their own dietary habits

- People who think that their upbringing makes them superior to those around them

Let me make something abundantly clear. These people aren’t fun to be around, because their entire purpose is to seek out information that confirms what they already believe.

You might remember the term confirmation bias from high school Psychology class. For those of you who are unfamiliar. I’ll give you a brief rundown.

Psychologists define confirmation bias as a selective collection of evidence that supports what one already believes while ignoring or rejecting evidence that supports a different conclusion.

If you believe that immigrants are stealing jobs from hard-working Americans, you’ll likely seek out information that proves your hypothesis right, instead of conducting an unbiased investigation to see if that’s actually true.

Confirmation bias is an epidemic.

It's a communicable disease of the mind which now runs rampant in our culture. Further exacerbating the situation are social media platforms that allow us to customize our news feeds, so we only have to see what we want to see. That means each of us is being fed a different version of the truth from everyone else around us. Thus, when arguments do bubble up, we retreat further into our “opinion caves” and pretend that anyone who disagrees with us must be clinically insane.

Why do we do this? In many ways, it goes back to our human need for certainty. The reward centers of our brains are activated when we arrive at an absolute conclusion that’s beyond ambiguity. It feels good when we get a clean-cut solution to a math problem, for example. But any good mathematician will also point out that the equation you used on the problem isn’t an exact representation of reality. There are many confounding factors, and even the most nuanced equations can fail to accurately predict real-world phenomena.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding us, we like to believe that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do pretty much everything. Once we’ve decided that we know right from wrong, we fiercely defend our black-and-white viewpoints like our lives depend on it. You might think that this only happens to uneducated people who don’t know any better, but research has proven that even the most intelligent among us fall prey to confirmation bias. A perfect example is choosing a presidential candidate. Researchers at Duke University found that most people, regardless of socioeconomic status, will hold onto their political and social viewpoints even when presented with conflicting evidence.

Confirmation bias serves no purpose except to put a cap on what you can potentially learn over the course of your life. If you choose not to engage with ideas you disagree with, you’ll never get the opportunity to speak intelligently about them because everyone around you will be able to see that you’re clearly biased.

So how can we recognize and eliminate confirmation bias?

A potential solution could be hidden in a self-distancing practice put forth by my former business school professor, Dr. Gerald Suarez. Each of his students would pair up and take turns making statements about themselves. But there was a catch. We had to follow up each statement with: “But that’s not who I am”. For example, my statements might go something like this:

I am a brother, but that’s not who I am

I am a son, but that’s not who I am

I am a student, but that’s not who I am

What this exercise did was serve as an opportunity to reconsider how we chose to identify. Oftentimes we assume biases based on our socioeconomic status, our race, our gender, or any number of external things. Our biases can even stem from elements of our internal experience:

I am anxious sometimes, but that’s not who I am

I am confident, but that’s not who I am

I am resilient, but that’s not who I am

Even positive affirmations can limit our perspective. Living with a chip on your shoulder might help you survive in some scenarios, but it can also prevent you from seeing the world as it truly is.

The antidote

Confirmation bias is a disease, but the proper cure could be as simple as changing our perspective on ourselves. One proven practice for doing so is self-distancing.

Self-distancing, which is the act of creating mental distance between your sense of self and the emotions that you experience, is an effective tool used by psychologists in the treatment of depression. But it also has a hidden benefit: it allows people to make more rational decisions that aren’t based on emotion.

Let’s say I’m recalling a particularly nasty argument with a coworker. I could ask “why did Chris say that to me?” and suddenly Chris becomes the central problem in the scenario. I implicitly blame him as the source of my emotional distress, which is an unfortunate byproduct of linguistics. But I can also shift my perspective through the mode of language.

I’ll go from “Why did I say that to Chris?” to “Why did Colin say that to Chris?” suddenly Colin and Chris become like two characters in a play, in which “I” am no longer emotionally invested in. From this viewpoint, I can analyze each character’s behavior and focus on the real issues at play. Research has shown that this strategy decreases emotional distress in patients suffering traumatic events and allows them to make better informed decisions about what to do going forward.

It seems to me that we could all use a more regular practice in self-distancing, because too often we let emotions get the best of us. Worst of all, we unintentionally hurt the people around us when arguments become emotionally charged, irrational battles of conflicting information.

We should all strive to be less judgmental of that which we don’t understand, because there are very few absolutes in this world.

Bruce Lee said it best.

Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.

And as my Dad bluntly says at times: “there’s more than one way to skin a cat”.

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