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How to spot confirmation bias and keep it from fueling snap judgments and limiting your worldview

Cassandra Miasnikov,Brad Brenner   

How to spot confirmation bias and keep it from fueling snap judgments and limiting your worldview
  • Confirmation bias happens when you unconsciously focus on ideas that match what you already believe.
  • Possible reasons include wishful thinking, anxiety, info overload, and the need to protect yourself.

Confirmation bias, one of the most common cognitive biases, refers to the unconscious tendency to seek out and pay more attention to information consistent with your present beliefs.

This cognitive bias is more common than you probably realize, says Emily Simonian, licensed marriage and family therapist and Head of Clinical Learning at Thriveworks.

"It happens in two ways: when you develop narratives that match your beliefs, and when you seek information – which may or may not be true – to confirm those beliefs," Simonian says.

Since this error in thought works by confirming what you already believe, it can be tricky to spot on your own.

Note: Everyone slips into cognitive bias sometimes, but it's important to know that these errors in thinking lead to inaccurate judgments or hasty decisions that could have unwanted consequences.

Here are a few examples of confirmation bias in action, plus a few tips to keep it from affecting your decisions and relationships.

Examples of confirmation bias

You could be dealing with confirmation bias if you catch yourself searching for or giving more credit to one-sided evidence, aka cherry-picking.

Other common situations where confirmation bias might come into the picture:

On Google: Search engine algorithms are designed to give you what you want — so, when you phrase questions in a one-sided way, you'll likely find information that confirms your pre-existing belief. For example, if you search something like "Is Biden a socialist?" you'll likely be given articles that include the search terms "Biden" and "socialist".

With friends: If you focus more heavily on the negative — a friend not texting back one or two times — over the positive — like the fact they always respond right away when you're having a hard time — you're cherry-picking which behaviors matter most. This may ultimately create resentment and harm your friendship.

In academia: Scientists committed to their hypothesis often disregard inconsistent facts, psychologist and Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman once warned. They may conclude those facts are wrong rather than revising their theory based on new findings, simply because they don't want to throw their theory out.

In medicine: When clinicians have a suspicion about a patient's diagnosis, they sometimes hone in on evidence supporting their theory. But sometimes, this can mean they end up ignoring evidence that supports another equally likely alternative, potentially hurting the patient in the long run.

Why does it happen?

There are plenty of potential explanations, but most come back to the idea that people are bombarded with so much information they don't have enough time to carefully consider every piece available. Confirmation bias, then, serves as an efficient and easy way to process a lot of information.

But, of course, other factors come into play, too, such as:

Desire for simplicity: "Confirmation bias can result from people's natural desire for simplicity and coherence in their beliefs," Dragomir says.

Protecting yourself: You might feel the need to gather and interpret information quickly to protect yourself from getting hurt. For instance, when your friend fails to text you back a few times, you might take this as confirmation they don't care about your friendship and decide to end it to save yourself later pain.

Wishful thinking: "When people really want a concept or idea to be true, they rely on wishful thinking or filtered proof to validate their idea," Dragomir says. But often, wishful thinking can distract you from what you do have and leave you disappointed.

Anxiety: "The anxious mind is constantly on alert, searching for 'proof' to justify your fears" Simonian says. As a result of this anxiety, you might find yourself trying to solve problems that don't actually exist, which can lead to worsened anxiety and fuel unnecessary stress and fatigue.

What's the impact?

Dragomir says unchecked confirmation bias can make it harder to identify healthy decisions for your future, which could potentially contribute to mental health concerns down the line.

One 2018 study involving 99 teenagers found that cognitive biases significantly increased depression and anxiety and that these biases are partly responsible for the onset and continuation of mental health conditions. Researchers suggest treating these biases may help relieve stress and improve overall well-being.

"Confirmation bias is the bias of 'more.' The information you find that supports your beliefs or opinions can create more symptoms or symptom severity: more anxiety, more worry, more fear, more small-mindedness, or more trouble accepting other opinions," Simonian says.

And when it comes to your relationships?

"Confirmation bias lacks perspective, and perspective is necessary if you want to be in healthy relationships with friends, family, coworkers, or a significant other," Simonian says.

What's more, confirmation bias can also make you seem close-minded and inflexible, Dragomir says, which can affect your ability to have constructive conversations or reach compromises with people in your everyday life.

How to overcome it

You can overcome confirmation bias by getting out of your echo chamber to challenge your preexisting beliefs.

Here are some quick tips for getting started.

Search for accurate information, not easy-access information

Before making up your mind, spend a little more time seeking out evidence that disproves your point.

According to one 2021 survey, almost half of United States adults get their news from social media "often" or "sometimes." Though it might go without saying, information from social media can be rife with political bias and false information.

"Question your sources. Make sure you're getting your information from reliable sources and that you're not just seeking out information that confirms your existing beliefs," Dragomir says.

Ask emotionally neutral questions

The way you phrase a question can have a direct impact on how someone responds. Asking questions with certain hot-button words, or words that reveal your bias, could prompt an emotionally charged response.

So, if you want the accurate information you'll need to make an informed decision, you'll want to choose your words carefully.

For instance, the Pew Research Center survey asked participants a slightly different version of the same question:

  • Over half of survey respondents favored "making it legal for doctors to give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives."
  • Under half said they favored "making it legal for doctors to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide."

Both questions are asking essentially the same question, but the participants gave different answers, based on the words used.

Here's a more everyday example: Say your partner often doesn't stop to greet you when they get home. You might ask yourself, "Why are they mad at me all the time?"

This emotionally charged assumption bypasses critical thinking and feeds your belief that your partner is constantly upset. It could even lead you to make an impulsive decision and preemptively break up.

Instead, try asking, "Why didn't they greet me when they came inside?"

Asking a more neutral question — one that contains only facts, not personal values — can help you get more accurate information, not to mention make less biased decisions.

Get third-party guidance

Cognitive biases are common. If you find yourself falling into the same one repeatedly, a mental health professional can offer more support with exploring the beliefs that might be driving your confirmation bias and developing a more well-rounded and accurate view of the world, Dragomir says.

They can do this by teaching you skills to replace confirmation bias, like thought-challenging, distraction techniques, or positive self-talk, Simonian says.

Best online therapy resources

Online therapy is an accessible way to work with a mental health professional, and our guides to the best online therapy services and best free online therapy services can help you to start addressing confirmation bias.

Insider's takeaway

Ultimately, confirmation bias can create self-fulfilling prophecies that result in choices that negatively affect your everyday life and impact your relationships with others.

Seeking out new information, paying attention to phrasing, and getting support from a therapist can help you overcome this cognitive bias and make decisions that better serve your needs.

Dragomir suggests expanding your worldview through open curiosity and respectful conversation to get started.

"Talk to people who have different opinions and be curious about them. This can help you understand other points of view and learn new information," Dragomir says.


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