If the year 2020 can be thought of as a massive, uncontrolled experiment in psychology, I hope one of the takeaways is that confirmation bias is, unfortunately, alive and well. When it comes to flaws in our thinking, confirmation bias is king. It’s what happens when we seek out, often without being aware of it, information that confirms what we already believe and push away the data that might invite us to change our minds. This tendency of ours, also known as the myside bias and the congeniality bias, plays out in politics, in medicine, and even in scientific research.
We can think of confirmation bias as what happens when our brain has to weigh two conflicting goals: being accurate and defending what we value. We all want to find out what is true and factual but at what cost? It’s like an opinion is a baby that you want to protect from harm, which motivates you to look for harmless information, to spin what you find in the best way possible for the baby, and to remember only what benefits them. It has been hypothesized that this bias is nurtured by a number of things: how easy it is to take mental shortcuts; our preference for positive thoughts; even our need to cope with harsh realities and believe reassuring fantasies. And because real life often provides us with a mixture of contradictory information, it’s easy to let our preconceptions guide our Googling for maximum reassurance.
The influence confirmation bias has on us can sometimes be overstated: it has actually been described as “moderate.” But given how universal this inclination is, we have to wonder if it’s been helpful to our survival. It can certainly protect our ego and prevent us from changing our opinion on a dime. But the ways in which it harms us are much greater. Believers in alternative medicine often fall prey to confirmation bias by trusting positive anecdotes and rejecting rigorous but negative studies. Yet for the science-minded skeptic, it’s easy to let the myside bias blind us to bad scientific research and hyped-up press releases for the latest COVID therapeutic or vaccine. The bias cuts both ways.
It doesn’t seem possible to get rid of confirmation bias, but being aware of it and taking a step back to reconsider the information we seek can help overcome it in theory. Our modern information landscape certainly doesn’t help matters. The poet Dante Alighieri wrote in The Divine Comedy that “opinion—hasty—often can incline to the wrong side, and then affection for one’s own opinion binds, confines the mind.” How much more forceful his assertion might have been had he known about social media?