Cognitive Bias: Destroyer of Communities

How would you feel if I told you that many of the facts you know are actually wrong? Probably pretty confused, maybe a little defensive. Well, thanks to confirmation bias, you can know something to be true and still be wrong about it.

Simply stated, confirmation bias is looking for evidence that confirms what you want to know, or how you think an outcome should be, without taking into account potentially conflicting information.

This morning, I was looking through Psychology Today, searching for something else to talk about that wasn’t strictly political or self-help. So let’s get nerdy. And, like many people, if a headline catches my attention, I will choose that article over something else. This article caught my attention. Quickly. The piece, Confirmation Bias: Why You Make Terrible Life Choices by Nir Eyal, goes over what Confirmation Bias (or CoBi as I will refer to it from here on out) is, why it happens, and how to neutralize some of it.

The last part is where social commentary comes in. But first, details.

CoBi comes in when you have an assumption. You seek to be right about that assumption. So, if you wake up and say to yourself, “the world sucks, and I’m going to have a terrible day,” you will subconsciously seek out any evidence throughout the day to prove yourself correct. After all, we don’t want to be wrong, do we? It connects to how we look up information, how we perceive people and situations, and more importantly, how we perceive ourselves.

One thing that I like that Eyal notes is that:

It’s easy to accept opposing views when it concerns things you don’t care about. But you also have deep-seated beliefs that form a core part of your identity (e.g. that you’re a kind person, that your political views are correct). Evidence that runs counter to these beliefs often causes cognitive dissonance—a feeling of immense stress and anxiety.

And I think this is incredibly important to note, because this is where my thoughts start emerging. When politics or religion comes up and people start losing their adult attributes and become screaming children, identities start being thrown at each other.

By setting up a wall around what may conflict with personal views and beliefs, you are setting yourself up to push away learning. In scientific studies, the original person (or group) will come up with an idea and try to prove that to be true. Just like the rest of us do with our daily lives.

But the reason scientists are my second-favorite kind of people (the first being bookworms, of course) is that their colleagues are ruthless. They will try whatever they can, within reason, to disprove someone’s hypothesis.

Missed taking into consideration one variable at the penultimate point of the experiment? Get wrecked. There goes your entire analysis. Start again fresh, buddy.

And the reason I love this way of being is that it seeks a objective truth, rather than a subjective truth. It’s not always perfect. Everyone has their own personal bias as well. That can never be ignored completely; it can only be accounted for.

On the street-version of this though, talking to someone with a purpose of curiosity rather than argument can benefit everyone involved. It may be painful to do sometimes. I had a hard time with this when I was a teen and in my early years of college. Still, once in a while, I struggle. But it helps to surround yourself with people that have varying opinions and beliefs.

That pesky comfort zone… it endangers your intellectual growth, and it is meant to be left behind.

We can all be more accepting without giving up the opinions and beliefs that make us who we are.  As David McRaney, of YouAreNotSoSmart, says in his article on CoBi says,

In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the same method should inform your opinions as well.

I sincerely think that there would be less frustrations and hostility between folks if they took time to, at the very least, listen with the purpose of learning rather than  countering.

The next step up would be to question everything you learn. Be your own scientific team. You’ll be happy you did.

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