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How can we reduce confirmation bias?



What is Confirmation Bias and how do we fight one of the most tricky human instincts? It takes decisive action to overcome. Read on for an overview, and for some practical strategies to try backed by recent research.


In our digital age, where information is abundant and easily accessible, it's more crucial than ever to recognize and mitigate cognitive biases that distort our understanding of the world. One of the most pervasive biases is confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek out, interpret, and remember information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs while ignoring or dismissing evidence that contradicts them. Overcoming confirmation bias is essential for making rational decisions and fostering constructive dialogue and healthy interpersonal relationships.


If we don't push past our assumptions, then there is little opportunity for empathy and leaving room for changing opinions. One of my favorite sayings is, "A wise person knows what they don't know." In other words, a little intellectual humility can go a long way. When we extend this concept beyond politics, and into difficult personal or professional relationships, we can also apply these strategies to examine a relationship that is in need of some attention, and possibly seek opportunities for repair or compromise.


We are likely holding some strong selective recall about the person or situations from the past; yet if we also attempt to find more balance in our interpretation, or at the very least some emotional neutrality, this can serve to counteract harmful bias, and allow for the possibility of relationship dialogue or interpretation adjustments, if desired.


Understanding Confirmation Bias


Confirmation bias influences our behavior in several ways:

  1. Selective Exposure: Preferring information sources that support our beliefs.

  2. Selective Interpretation: Interpreting ambiguous data to fit our views.

  3. Selective Recall: Remembering information that supports our beliefs more readily than contradictory information.


It is only human and serves an evolutionary function to interpret the stimuli we are presented with so that we can learn and avoid repeating errors and keep ourselves safe. However, understanding that we do so with a personally biased lens is important. This explains how two people can see the same information and come to vastly different conclusions. To find our way out of confirmation bias, we will need to rely on the principle that questioning our own assumptions is critical. We should be informed by what we see and experience, but not let our automatic interpretations be our truth.


Strategies to Overcome Confirmation Bias


1. Seek Out Diverse Perspectives

The best leaders assemble diverse teams and consult diverse information sources. A study published in Nature Human Behaviour (2020) found that exposure to diverse viewpoints significantly reduces the impact of confirmation bias. Participants who engaged with differing opinions showed greater openness to changing their views based on new evidence. This can be applied in a personal way, by consulting a variety of persons for their input. Friends and family members are not neutral sources, as they are likely to be partisan. Therefore, extending the circle of people you consult increases the likelihood of getting a variety of perspectives. Making a conscious ongoing effort to consume media and literature from multiple viewpoints that challenges your beliefs, can help sustain a more balanced world-view. Participating in groups or activities with a diverse make-up can enhance your exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking.


2. Question Your Assumptions

Examining your personal evidence is a good cognitive habit. According to a 2021 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, individuals who regularly questioned their assumptions and engaged in reflective thinking were less susceptible to confirmation bias. This practice helped them approach problems more objectively and consider alternative solutions. Cognitive behavioral therapy is built around the technique of examining biased thinking and overcoming old cognitive schemas. Adopting a habit of regularly challenging your beliefs is encouraged. Asking yourself why you hold a particular view, and what evidence supports it is a worthwhile exercise. Therapists are useful guides in this process which can be difficult to do alone.


3. Embrace Uncertainty

Ambiguity is not the enemy, and embracing uncertainty is key to an appropriate response: A 2022 article in Psychological Science, highlights that individuals who accept uncertainty and are comfortable with not having all the answers are better at processing information objectively. This mindset reduces the need to cling to confirming evidence to feel secure in one’s beliefs, and to justify actions that may not be working well. Recognize that it’s okay not to have all the answers right away, and that being open to new information is a strength, not a weakness. Watching the world-wide COVID response evolve (or not evolve) in light of new information, was a good example of what can happen if ambiguity and cognitive flexibility are not well managed.


4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Enhancing critical thinking skills is effective in combating confirmation bias. A 2020 study in Thinking & Reasoning demonstrated that training in critical thinking techniques, such as learning how to evaluate the credibility of sources and considering counterarguments, significantly reduced confirmation bias in participants. Invest time in developing your critical thinking skills. Take courses, read books, or engage in activities that promote analytical thinking. Practice evaluating the credibility of information sources and considering multiple viewpoints.


5. Engage in Structured Reflection

Take time to systematically evaluate all possible angles. A 2021 study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition found that structured reflection exercises, where individuals systematically consider alternative explanations and viewpoints, helped reduce confirmation bias. This approach encouraged more balanced and thoughtful analysis of information. Incorporating structured reflection into your decision-making process can really help when faced with important decisions or complex information. Being truly open to consider evidence that both supports and contradicts your initial beliefs takes effort.


Conclusion

Overcoming confirmation bias requires awareness and deliberate action. By seeking out diverse perspectives, questioning your assumptions, embracing uncertainty, developing critical thinking skills, and engaging in structured reflection, you can significantly reduce the impact of confirmation bias on your thinking. These strategies, supported by recent research, can lead to more informed and rational decision-making, fostering a more balanced and open-minded approach to the world around you. If there is a relationship in your life that feels conflictual, attempting some of these strategies to adjust your perspective might help you shift your thinking, and open you up to the opportunities for a deeper understanding or change.



References

  1. Levy, R., & Razin, R. (2020). The Effect of Exposure to Diverse Opinions on Confirmation Bias. Nature Human Behaviour.

  2. Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2021). Questioning Assumptions to Combat Confirmation Bias. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

  3. Tappin, B. M., & McKay, R. T. (2022). Embracing Uncertainty to Reduce Confirmation Bias. Psychological Science.

  4. Baron, J. (2020). Critical Thinking and Confirmation Bias: A Cognitive Approach. Thinking & Reasoning.

  5. Scopelliti, I., et al. (2021). Structured Reflection Reduces Confirmation Bias in Complex Decision Making. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.



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Dr. Marie C. Dumas, EI
Cybertherapy Consulting

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