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Confirmation bias is natural but should be challenged

A look at social media comments on current events or at the news is likely to provide examples of people believing what they want to believe. In the US, after the recent release of the attorney general’s summary of the Mueller investigation, Republican leaders said that President Donald Trump had been exonerated, while many Democrats argued that he had not and that many questions remain — even though neither party has actually seen the full report. Look at social media posts or news commentaries about Brexit, immigration, aid convoys to Venezuela, the occupied Golan Heights, the South China Sea dispute and many other subjects, and the same phenomenon often appears.

This happens for several reasons, a key one being confirmation bias. Human beings have a very strong inclination to look for information that confirms what they already believe. In his book “The Righteous Mind,” Jonathan Haidt defines confirmation bias as “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think.”

Confirmation bias is one type of cognitive bias, which occurs when the brain is processing information and tries to simplify complex data. In many aspects of life, the brain’s ability to quickly process information is important and useful. However, when people are trying to understand the complex world around them and develop solutions to problems, cognitive biases are deeply problematic.

Confirmation bias stops people from gathering more information and from reasonably considering the information they have. People have a strong tendency to choose information that supports what they want to believe or that supports their pre-existing view of the world. Therefore, they often stop looking for information once they have enough information to support their view. They also tend to cherry-pick information.

The effects of confirmation bias in politics, religion, business and daily life undermine the ability of people to properly examine information and develop effective solutions to problems. In policymaking, it often leads people to promote policies that reflect their group identity and desired belief structures rather than making decisions based on the thoughtful, comprehensive examination of evidence. Confirmation bias stymies effective problem-solving.

Confirmation bias also reinforces divisions and makes it more difficult for people to cooperate. Different countries and groups of people can struggle to work together because they refuse to consider evidence that might suggest that “the other side” has some legitimate arguments. In the US, for example, Republicans and Democrats often prefer to view the other side as immoral, stupid, lying and dangerous — which of course suggests that their own side is superior — than to consider whether their fellow Americans in the other political party might have some valid points.

Part of the difficulty in combating confirmation bias is that it feels good. It feels good to believe that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. It feels good to consume news and information that makes us feel that we are right and that the world works the way we believe it does.

However, even though confirmation bias is hardwired into the human brain and difficult to overcome, people can adopt tools to mitigate it. This starts with understanding that confirmation bias exists and seeing it in ourselves. When we recognize it and how it makes us think, we can work to lessen its effects. We can try to seriously consider information that contradicts our beliefs; when we reject such information, we can try to be honest about whether we are rejecting it because we do not like it or because we have clear, rational reasons.

We should be very skeptical of people who express absolute certainty. Such individuals can be charismatic and appealing because the human brain naturally looks for simple answers. This is one reason why populism can be so powerful. However, absolute certainty is a good clue that confirmation bias — and other cognitive biases — are at work.

We can reject binaries. For example, it is possible that both Israelis and Palestinians have evidence of the other side lying or behaving inhumanely. This does not mean that their evidence or grievances carry equal weight. It just means that both sides might have information and arguments worthy of consideration.

In business, government and academic environments where people are engaging in serious analytical work, they can train in and apply formal structured analytic techniques to improve their analysis, including mitigating cognitive biases.

Confirmation bias is a natural tool for the human brain to make sense of a complex world. However, for those who want effective policies and problem-solving, believing only what we want to believe is an obstacle worth fighting.