2, 4, 6, 8, …
Can you guess the logic behind these numbers?
Guess what the next 3 numbers are and I will tell you whether they fit as the next 3 numbers. After your 3 guesses and my answer, you have to decipher the logic. Ready?
What numbers do you want to check?
Did you guess 10, 12, 14? I say yes to all three. You would tell me the logic is adding 2 to the previous number.
Your jaw would drop when I tell you that your logic was incorrect. The logic behind the series is the current number should be greater than the previous number.
In fact, the logic could have been anything such as:
- Positive numbers
- Numbers less than 20
- Numbers which add up to even numbers
This isn’t a trick question like the image-based IQ questions on Facebook. The purpose of this question is to help you realize how easily you make a hasty decision without validating it.
You concluded these are a set of even numbers. You tried to validate your assumption by checking 3 cases which confirmed your belief.
You should have guessed numbers which would have contradicted your logic. If you had guessed 9, I would have told yes. You would have realized that your logic of even numbers was incorrect.
But you did not, because of a flaw of your mind called the confirmation bias.
I am writing a set of posts to help you identify how your brain plays games with you. This article is on the topic – The Confirmation Bias. You can read about all the cognitive biases of the mind.
What is confirmation bias? Definition
The meaning of Confirmation bias is the tendency to look at new information such that it matches our beliefs and assumptions. As per psychology, confirmation bias is a part of the flaws of the human mind, called cognitive biases
The 2, 4, 6, 8 question is a famous confirmation bias experiment conducted by Peter Wason.
As expected, most students fell victim to the tendency of confirming what they already believed.
Due to the bias, we only look at proof which matches our beliefs and fail to look at cases which contradict our belief. Even if we encounter proof against our belief, we ignore them as exceptions or invalid.
We love to be right. We love to stick to our opinion. We love to prove our ego right.
We do so unconsciously without realizing the influence of the bias. You think you are smart enough to not make such mistakes, but trust me, we all are daily victims of this bias.
Surprised? Let me give you an example. Do you support a political party? Most people do.
How would you react when your party does something which helps the citizens? You laud and praise them.
How would you react when your party does something bad? You tell yourself “they are human, mistakes happen,” and shrug it off.
How would you react when the opposition party does a mistake? You would complain saying the opposition is good for nothing. When they do something good, you ignore it. You might even find a fault in the good they did and go around telling everyone that the move was not as great as everyone thinks.
The bottom line – you want your original belief to stay intact. If any information matches your belief, you accept the information. If you find any information that contradicts your belief, you either find a fault with it or ignore it as a one-off case. Sometimes, contradicting information gets you emotionally charged too.
Remember the fight you had with a friend due to a political belief, a sports team or your preferred choice? You fell victim to the confirmation bias.
The reason behind the confirmation bias lies in your mind. Evaluating new facts needs energy, and changing belief makes you uncomfortable. Therefore, the brain chooses the path of least resistance – sticking to the original belief.
Warren Buffet has wisely said, “Human beings are best at interpreting new information such that their prior conclusions remain intact.”
The behavior is like a cat closing its eyes while drinking milk thinking no one can see it.
Facts do not cease to exist because you ignore them– Aldous Huxley
Confirmation Bias Examples
Confirmation bias happens right in front of your eyes every now and then, but you fail to notice.
I am not trying to argue if astrology or Tarot Cards works in real life or not. We have believers and non-believers. But you will have a tough time changing the opinion of either a believer or a non-believer.
The believer will look only at the successful predictions made by an astrologer. The non-believer will refute the claim by stating some predictions made by the astrologer which did not come true.
If you bring a believer and a non-believer into the same room and ask them to speak about their beliefs, a heated debate follows. In the end, both come out of the room, emotional and agitated but with their beliefs still intact.
Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine that relies on super diluted substances. The concept behind the cure of homeopathy -something that brings a symptom in healthy people can cure the disease in sick people in small doses. The small dose is believed to trigger the body’s internal defenses.
For example, since onions make your eyes water, little doses of onion serve as medicine for eye allergies.
Do you know that homeopathy DOES NOT work?
Time and again, scientific studies have proved that homeopathy does not work.
A french researcher invented Homeopathy when he found out that a solution of diluted histamines worked. Back in the 18th Century, he did not perform any blind tests or test for a placebo effect. These two are the basic tests without which medicine is not considered legal today.
The inventer believed his medicine worked wonders. He found many cases that confirmed his theory and ignored all the cases which did not. Many other researchers proved homeopathy to be ineffective in the early days itself with blind tests.
Homeopathy as a medicine is known to take a long time for a cure. But studies have shown that the body has the ability to cure itself over time. The concept of homeopathy lies in letting the body cure itself, making the approach questionable.
In the many scientific experiments performed, no evidence was found to prove that the homeopathy pills caused a cure.
Yet, more and more people believe in homeopathy for a simple reason. Let us assume you have a cold. Your body will get rid of it in a week or two by itself. If you take homeopathy medicine along, you believe the medicine worked. If it does not, you believe that homeopathy as a form of medicine that takes a long time for the cure.
Whether the medicine works or not, your belief still holds true.
The moon landings were fake
After the 1969 moon landing, a conspiracy theory did the rounds. Many people, including Americans, believed that the moon landings were fake and filmed at Area 51.
Try providing a logical explanation to a conspiracy theory believer. He will shoot back with a scenario that seems unclear(Example: How did the flag flutter?).
The conspiracy theory believer will not argue against valid proof. His argument will always be a different questionable scenario about the theory.
By the way, we have enough and more proof that the moon landings did happen in 1969.
Atheists Vs Believers
As per a study in 2018, atheists make 7% of the world population. About 16% do not associate themselves with any religion. That leaves the other 84% as believers.
Atheists will argue about God turning a blind eye about poverty and suffering in the world. They explain the existence of life using evolution and other science facts.
The believers talk about miracles, the power of prayer, the divine sightings and the inability of science to explain the reason behind the big bang.
Trying to convince an atheist or a believer to change his opinion is like banging your head against a thick iron door. You will hurt your head while the door will not undergo the slightest of change.
When conducting an interview, the interviewers have a preconceived notion about who the ideal fit for the role is. For example, the interviewer might expect the right candidate to wear a formal outfit or answer a specific trick question he came up with.
When a candidate shows up in casuals, the interviewer notices all the minute mistakes the candidate commits. This validates his presumption that casually dressed candidates do not have the skill to perform the job.
In a similar bias, a few years earlier, asking unexpected interview questions such as “why are manholes round?” had been the trend. The question is said to test the candidates’ problem-solving skills.
In reality, the manhole question has nothing to do with how good a programmer or a sales guy the candidate is. On the other end, just because a candidate knows the answer, he does not become a good fit for the role either.
Yet many interviewers believed those who could answer such questions were the smartest.
Doctors and Patients
A doctor has to predict the ailment of a patient based on the symptoms. The problem is, many ailments have similar symptoms.
Doctors make mistakes by assuming that the patient has disease X and asking for symptoms that prove so. Some doctors even dismiss X-ray and MRI results which disprove their diagnosis saying the machine could have missed it.
Such biased diagnosis has led to many cases of unwanted surgeries, incorrect medicine, diagnosing the wrong disease and even deaths.
For example, the symptoms of viral fever and Dengue are very similar. If a doctor assumes the patient has a viral fever, even the symptoms of Dengue match well to confirm his assumption. Ignoring Dengue can lead to death in extreme cases.
The doctor without a confirmation bias would prescribe a blood test for Dengue to help him with the diagnosis.
How confirmation bias affects you on a daily basis
Confirmation bias cannot be spotted unless you know such a concept exists. A majority of people do not even know about confirmation bias.
I can guarantee you that you and I are under the confirmation bias in some shape or form every day. To help you understand how common and powerful the confirmation bias, you should know that I fall victim to the bias on a daily basis in spite of writing the article.
You cannot free yourselves completely from the clutches of confirmation bias. Ever.
Here are some examples:
Your lucky ….
You might have a lucky outfit that you wear to interviews, presentations, dates or other important events. You believe the outfit influences the results in your favor. The truth is, you fail to consider other outfits that have delivered favorable results and the cases where your favorite outfit failed.
You associate success to that outfit and mentally wipe out the cases where it failed. On similar lines, you might also have Terrible Tuesdays, Wonderful Wednesdays or a Fantastic Number 5.
Favorite news channels
We like some new channels, we hate some. If you analyze with an open mind, you will notice that the channels that you like are inline with your core beliefs.
The most common example is where a news channel portrays one political party in a good light and another in the bad light. Supporters of a political party are likely to follow the news from the channel which shows them in the good light.
Supporting your favorite sports team
We love our favorite sports team and support all their decisions and actions. We even blind ourselves to certain incidents that we would have otherwise criticized.
For example, let us say a team member of your favorite team did something against the spirit of the game which the referee did not spot.
You will justify the action of your team member with some rationale or debate that it is the referee’s job to spot it. If a player of the opponent team did the same, you would go on and on ranting about it.
Social Media information tailoring
Today, with machine learning advancing, machines have grown capable of understanding your interests. Thus, social media news feeds contain posts that match your likes and beliefs. For example, if you like trekking, you will notice more posts related to trekking than a person who likes indoors.
This behavior has its benefits because your feed contains content within your interest which keeps you engaged. On the flip side, you find more posts that match your beliefs, deeply ingraining those beliefs further even when they’re wrong.
For example, during the 2016 US Presidential Elections, the supporters of Hillary Clinton were shocked to hear that Trump had won the elections. However, the supporters of Trump saw it coming.
The reason was, the supporters of both Trump and Hillary saw articles on social media which said their leader would win. This reinforced their own beliefs. Both sides expected their leader to win based on these articles.
Impression about people
As human beings, we form a mental impression of a person quickly due to the clustering illusion. You have even heard of sayings like “You only have one chance to make a good first impression.” Unfortunately, our impression is not always right because they are backed by very little data.
For example, you might find a new coworker arrogant because of one single sentence he said. Now, every time you find an email from the same coworker, you notice a few arrogant words. After reading those emails, you will further convince yourself that the person is arrogant. If an email is normal, you do not consider it good or bad. After reading 50 emails from the same person, you will only recall those emails you found arrogant and forget the rest.
In reality, you might have misheard what the sentence he said due to which you consider him offensive. The tone of an email can always be misleading where you assume arrogance when it does not exist.
Parents form similar impressions about their children. So does a husband about his wife. If a mom believes that her son does not keep his room clean, she will notice every time he leaves something on the bed. She will not consider the cases where the son made an effort to keep the room clean.
Similarly, the husband might assume that his wife nags him. He thereby notices every instance where she nags him but forgets the days she shows him love and support.
Such impressions lead to both parties having their own assumptions and differences. The mother thinks the son does not respect her words, while the son thinks why doesn’t his mother notice his effort instead of pointing at his odd mistake. The husband thinks why does his wife nag all the time while the wife thinks why doesn’t her husband recognize the love she showers.
How to avoid confirmation bias
Overcoming the confirmation bias is impossible unless you know that it is rampant throughout your life. Now that you have read this article, you understand how the bias lures you into confirming your own beliefs.
However, knowing about the bias and identifying the bias in yourself are two different things altogether. Here are some things you can do to fight the bias. You can never kill it off though.
Force yourself to find negative cases
When you find yourself conforming to a belief, force yourself to find negative cases. Whether you want to believe ghosts exist, palm reading works or that a specific stock is a great buy, check if you can find evidence which disproves your theory.
When Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution, he spent a massive amount of time to find cases that could prove his theory false. As a result, no matter how much the theory has advanced since Charles Darwin, the base theory of Darwin has still not been disproven.
Ask for a second opinion
When you find yourself arriving at a conclusion quickly, apply your brakes. Ask for a second opinion when possible and listen to the inputs. You can still turn back to the original choice but consider the inputs with a neutral mindset.
For example, patients diagnosed with cancer must seek a second opinion because cancer tests are not always accurate.
Be open to criticism
The biggest proof against your belief comes as criticism. For example, you might have an idea which you believe can be the next big thing. When you tell others about the idea, some will criticize your idea. But you ignore the criticism. You assume people are jealous of your idea or because they do not know enough.
Having said that, not all criticism turns out useful. Some people have the tendency to criticize anything and everything which comes their way. You must have the humility to listen, process the criticism and then decide if you should shoo it off or consider it seriously.
Gather more information
It is easy to fall victim to the confirmation bias when you only have a few cases to prove your theory. For example, if you believe that IT stocks are on the rise, finding 2 or 3 stocks which conform to your theory isn’t good enough. You need more data.
A word of caution here: More data does not guarantee the right solution unless you collect a diverse set of information. You might fall deeper into the bias again if you find more data that conforms to your belief making you more delusional.
The biased way to collect data for the IT stocks case is to search for “top IT stocks today”. If you Google that, you will find many stocks that have risen. The right way to collect the data is to gather random IT stocks and then check further.
Avoid the mission of proving yourself right
As humans, we like to always be right. Winning provides us joy and comfort. More importantly, it boosts our ego that we are the best. To prove our intelligence and wisdom, you and I fight for our initial stand even when we hear compelling evidence against it.
When you find yourself fighting hard to prove your point, pause and ponder to consider the possibility that you could be mistaken.
When you encounter a surprise, you found something you did not expect. It means something went against your belief or expectations. Do not dismiss it.
For example, when a doctor expects the ligament to be torn but sees the report saying it is normal, he can brush off the surprise thinking the machine missed it. This can lead to a patient undergoing the wrong diagnosis.
Do not sweep surprises under the rug.
Confirmation bias is one of the hardest biases to overcome.
Even if you believe you are open-minded, you will still fall victim to the bias. Even if you consider yourself thoughtful, you will still fall victim to the bias. Even if you spend time making a well-thought decision, you will still fall victim to the bias.
You can never attack confirmation bias head-on. It is like an enemy from another galaxy who cannot be beaten. Your best defense against the bias is to accept that you are vulnerable and put in an effort to recognize it in yourself. Asking questions such as:
- Did I look only at positive evidence?
- What evidence can prove my belief wrong?
- Did I ignore any negative evidence on purpose?
- If I told my worst enemy about my belief, what questions and facts would he produce?
At the end of it all, you will fight constant battles against confirmation bias. You will win some, you will lose some. Try to win more often than you lose.
What I am not:
What I am:
Continuously improving self-learner
Productivity/Time Management Obsessed