Confirmation Bias – The Archnemesis of Critical Thinking

Justice 2We all develop opinions. We all have our biases. We all have things that we’re taught from the cradle about what’s truth in life. For some of us it’s a religion. For others it’s feminism. For some it’s misogyny. For many it’s family traditions. There are any number of things that form our opinions and biases. It’s not just our family, or even the teachers we deal with in school, though they do have a direct impact. There are things like television commercials, public service announcements, and our own rebellious natures.

This is where things get slippery, though. Most of us have to think really long and hard about where exactly we formed our opinions, and why we have them. A lot of us don’t bother with that kind of self-analysis. We just go on thinking and believing what we’re predisposed to think and believe. I was personally faced with this interesting exercise when I started to discuss abortion in a series of blog posts. I knew what I felt about the topic, but I had never really explored my beliefs and their origins. Even the most passionate among us, with regard to their beliefs, will often have a hard time unraveling the complex string of events that led to their current confidence of position.

Once we get to that point, however, we become guilty of something called confirmation bias. We no longer question our beliefs or think critically about them. What we do instead, is merely look for confirmation to prove our beliefs to be correct. We notice only those things, and anything that might disprove those beliefs becomes invisible to us. Writing my blog series on abortion (that evolved into questioning the right to procreate), which you can find here, here, and here, I was forced to examine where those opinions came from, and question their origins. I don’t think I came to any concrete conclusions, either, so my own beliefs remain somewhat muddled as a result.

That’s a good thing, though. Muddled beliefs mean you still have the openness to question them and base your opinions more situationally, rather than over a broad spectrum and applying them willy-nilly to everything without exception. A good example of that would be the abortion laws with respect to those who have been the victim of incest or rape. Many American laws state unequivocally that abortion is against the law, and they make no exceptions for those who have been raped, or have been the victim of a twisted family member. They also make no exception for a fetus that is deformed, will not survive birth, and will in fact kill the mother should she carry her pregnancy to term. This is the situation that happened in Ireland, which you can read about here, that forced the courts to change their stance on abortion.

Abortion being such a touchy subject, most people are severely entrenched in their beliefs, and many of those beliefs depend on whether you’re of a religious bent, or lean more toward the scientific. Those who are religious usually believe that the soul is there at the moment of conception. Those of a scientific bent often believe that life begins when there’s a brain capable of sentient thought, or when the fetus is capable of feeling pain. So, in a country that is largely Judeo-Christian in population, such as the United States, the populace is very much at war when it comes to such volatile topics. The problem, of course, is that the U. S. Constitution does not recognize religion as any sort of legal argument. Canada has no official religion, either, but the government is much less interfered with by religious groups than the United States government is. Abortion is legal everywhere in Canada.

As someone who happens to feel very lucky in their friendships, I’m forced to examine my beliefs on a regular basis. My friends point out to me when I’m latching onto something in blind belief – probably because their beliefs are slightly different, so they can see that maybe it’s not a confirmed truth. I do the same thing with them. I’ve had many hours of conversation with a good friend who leans a little to the opposite of myself politically, and it’s something that does me a world of good. I’m questioned why I think a certain thing, and I have to examine my thoughts.

Far too many people congregate with others that are identical to them in belief, and they avoid those who might have a different opinion. We see it all the time with church congregations, political groups, and charitable organizations. As they say, birds of a feather flock together, and it’s generally a truism. However, for those who try to continue learning throughout life, those boundaries get old very quickly. They yearn to stretch their wings, to continue the analogy. Basically they look for fresh input. The only way to find it is to go outside your comfort zone and carry on a conversation with someone you might disagree with. The key, however, is to really listen to what they’re saying in order to see if there’s the smallest bit of merit to it. You will run into those who are sadly deluded about certain things, because they believe everything they see on the news or in print, or everything they’re told by the members of their own group. That’s fine. You can still separate the wheat from the chaff.

Learning to move away from confirmation bias is not an easy thing. It takes constant vigilance. You have to catch yourself up all the time, or hang out with people who will do it for you. After a few times of someone saying, “But that’s not what really happened. You have to look deeper,” or something to that effect, you’ll start to look deeper on your own. It’s easy to find information that confirms your beliefs, because you’re automatically attuned to finding it. Try the reverse sometime. Go out looking for the opposing argument. The statistics will always be there to disprove what you thought was true. There will be sources available that will really make you wonder what you were thinking, and it doesn’t even matter what side of the argument you were on. There are definitely two sides to every story, and then there is the middle ground where skepticism takes over and really makes you dig for the answers. Never take anything for granted. Not even your own iron-hard convictions. You’ll be surprised by what you learn about the world.

Rain Stickland
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Rain Stickland

Rain Stickland is a Canadian writer and producer, who is overly fond of ferrets and other furry creatures.
Rain Stickland
Follow Rain
Rain Stickland

About Rain Stickland

Rain Stickland is a Canadian writer and producer, who is overly fond of ferrets and other furry creatures.
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4 Responses to Confirmation Bias – The Archnemesis of Critical Thinking

  1. Steve KovacsSteve Kovacs says:

    I’m sure I’ve done this and probably still do it here and there but not much. I keep my ears and eyes open to everyone’s views and comments and tell each one of my new classes something a bit unusual. I tell them that I learn from everyone of my new classes or more particularly, my students. Learning, even for me, the teacher, means discovering something I did not know before. Keeping open to everyone is interesting and in fact, possible and a good thing.

    I don’t like deluding myself or being deluded by others. If it’s the truth and I have been on the wrong side of a subject, I’ll change in a heartbeat.

    I too have friends who respectfully challenge me and I listen to anyone who speaks with truly an unbiased agenda. If they are striving toward the truth in a given topic area, I’m all ears and eyes. Life’s too short to live in a fantasy land.

    • I think we all do it more often than we think we do. It’s very hard to have a truly open mind. Most of us have very firm beliefs we don’t even know we have. It’s like when two people get together in a relationship and neither one is particularly religious, until they have kids – then suddenly they want their child raised in their own religion. One starts talking about Bar Mitzvahs and circumcision, and the other one wants a Christening. It’s usually a shock to both parties that they feel as strongly as they do.

      The fact that you continue to learn with every new class means your mind is not closed to new information. It’s the healthiest way to be.

  2. Marlin Woosley says:

    Hey Ms. Rain!

    I like your analogy of separating the chafe from the wheat. It is true but too many people are more bent on imposing their beliefs than understanding another person’s beliefs. When that is obvious, I subscribe to a quote from one of our mutual acquaintances, Patricia Barbee. Ms. Patrica says that one should never try to argue with a fool.

    Your article also reminds me of wisdom from another of our mutual acquaintances, Jack Schick. Mr. Jack and I disagree on a lot subjects and issues but we agree on just as many. The thing that makes jack easy to talk to and glean ideas from is his objective ear. He says, to the effect of, “I can tell you what I believe but I cannot tell you what you should believe. I’ll listen to what to you believe and I may change my thinking as a result but you cannot tell me what I should believe.” If everyone could understand that, it seems that we would have a lot less to argue about and a broader thinking population.

    Your notion of understanding the origins of who we are and what we believe is interesting. Only when we can do that, can we truly separate the chafe from the wheat. It also helps, I think, to understand the origins of beliefs for someone important in your life.

    I married a Catholic. I am a free spirit. I tried it her way for a few years but, ultimately, I couldn’t compromise on some social and human rights issues that the church stood fast on. (Now we have Pope Francis) Occasionally I offer fresh thoughts to my wife. She listens but it’s unlikely that she’ll change what has been imbedded in her thoughts since childhood. That’s okay. It’s who she is and I knew that from the start.

    Great article, Rain!
    “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Stephen Covey

    • Thanks Marlin! Did you see the meme I had on my FB about arguing with idiots? It said, “Arguing with idiots is like playing chess with a pigeon. He’ll crap on the board and strut around like he’s won the game.” Or something to that effect. Two of the blog postings I referenced in this article were the ones that your comments inspired, if you remember. I really had to do some thinking when I wrote those pieces, and thankfully did not come to any firm conclusions about what I believe. Coming to a conclusion would mean I’ve closed my mind on the subject, and I’d rather keep it open.

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