How you can overcome confirmation bias and make better choices.
“We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to opinions that we formed in 1995,” psychology professor Adam Grant writes.
Cognitive scientists call this thinking pattern confirmation bias. Once you form a belief, you rarely question it again.
A 2016 study published by Cambridge University Press suggests the more intelligent you are (with intelligence equated to quantitative reasoning capacity), the harder you struggle to change your opinion.
Human brains love shortcuts to save mental energy. Evaluating disconfirming evidence takes up a lot of energy. So most people don’t do it.
And worse, most of the time, they don’t even realize their close-mindedness. As a result, they make important life choices based on outdated beliefs.
Why is it that most of us are bad at updating our worldview? And how can we overcome the psychological bias most people remain unaware of?
This bias lets you see what you expect to see
It’s a summer evening in 2017, and the first time I enter a yoga studio. The air smells woody, and the dimmed lights make the room look cosy.
Yet, my inner world is as far from cosy as it can get.
I look at the other model-esque people on their mats. With matching outfits and perfect bodies, they look freshly printed from an Instagram feed.
I feel uncomfortable and insecure. My downward facing dog must look like a crumpled grasshopper. The teacher glances at me, and I can tell he’s hiding a smirk. The hour-long class becomes inner torture.
I step out of the studio, deciding that was my first and last yoga experience.
I knew it! You are lucky to have a flexible body, or you aren’t.
What I didn’t realize back then is how confirmation bias tricked my mind.
I looked for evidence that confirmed my insecurities and beliefs about yoga.
I filtered out any information that contradicted my worldview.
I didn’t notice other people’s imperfections, their struggles, or the teacher’s supportive glance.
Confirmation bias is our tendency to search for, interpret, and favour information that is aligned with our pre-existing beliefs.
“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”— Robertson Davies
How confirmation bias affects your life
A person feels lazy during a home office day. He opens his LinkedIn, sees everyone else’s work achievement posts, and thinks, “I knew it. I’m such a lazy loser.”
Another person is on the train home from a day hike with her mum. She opens LinkedIn, sees the same posts, and thinks, “I can tell these people are not happy. I’m so grateful I chose to work less and spend more time with my family.”
Confirmation bias means we look at the same information and perceive it differently. We interpret facts, so it fits into our current understanding of the world.
“Whether you go through life believing that people are inherently good or people are inherently bad, you will find daily proof to support your case,” Rolf Dobelli writes in The Art of Thinking Clearly.
Confirmation bias affects your perception of reality, most of the time without you noticing it.
“The confirmation bias is so fundamental to your development and your reality that you might not even realize it is happening. We look for evidence that supports our beliefs and opinions about the world but excludes those that run contrary to our own.”— Sia Mohajer
How you can overcome confirmation bias to make better choices
No single magic formula can uncloud your perception. But the following tools can help you overcome confirmation bias.
Build a challenge network
Connect with people you disagree with. Adam Grant says you should build a “challenge network” rather than a support network.
You do need both. Keep cheerleaders in your network, but also look for thoughtful critics. Tell your coworkers and friends you value honesty over consent.
You can also build a virtual challenge network, for example, through Allsides, a website that features information from all sides of the political spectrum.
Ask the right questions
Don’t ask questions to get validation, but ask questions you have no answers to. Dare to ask the questions that reveal your knowledge gaps.
If a person’s opinion doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because you’ve not understood the root of their belief. Keep on asking to get the full context.
While ego-boosting questions feel more comfortable, learner’s questions help you expand your understanding.
Foster intellectual humility
Remain aware of what you don’t know. What are your areas of ignorance and fixed beliefs your hold?
When you read a book or an article, ask yourself: “Which sections did I automatically agree with? Which parts did I ignore? What if I thought the opposite?”
Build your identity through character traits rather than opinions
Value personal character traits, not opinions. Label yourself as a curious, humble learner searching for knowledge instead of labelling yourself as an expert in a specific topic.
This mindset shift gives you the freedom to disagree with your former self.
Changing your opinion when presented with evidence or arguments is one of the most valuable skills you can have in the 21st century.
Confirmation bias is a natural part of how our brain works, and the goal isn’t to completely overcome it. And yet, being aware of it will help you make better life choices.
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