The Confirmation Bias: Why It’s Hard to Change Your Mind
People search for information that confirms their view of the world and ignore what doesn’t fit. In an uncertain world, people love to be right because it helps us make sense of things. Indeed some psychologists think it’s akin to a basic drive. One of the ways they strive to be correct is by looking for evidence that confirms they are correct, sometimes with depressing or comic results:
A woman hires a worker that turns out to be incompetent. She doesn’t notice that everyone else is doing his work for him because she is so impressed that he shows up every day, right on time.
A sports fan who believes his team is the best only seems to remember the matches they won and none of the embarrassing defeats to inferior opponents.
A man who loves the country life, but has to move to the city for a new job, ignores the flight-path he lives under and noisy-neighbours-from-hell and tells you how much he enjoys the farmer’s market and tending his window box. We do it automatically, usually without realising. We do it partly because it’s easier to see where new pieces fit into the picture-puzzle we are working on, rather than imagining a new picture. It also helps shore up our vision of ourselves as accurate, right-thinking, consistent people who know what’s what. Psychologists call it the confirmation bias and it creeps into all sorts of areas of our lives. Here are a few examples:
“Hey, you look great, have you done something different with your hair?” Who doesn’t like a compliment? No one. It doesn’t even have to be sincerely delivered, I’ll take it. But what about… “Hey, you’re a real slime-ball, you know that?” Who likes insults? Well, we don’t exactly like them but—believe it or not—sometimes we seek them out if they confirm our view of ourselves. In a study that examined this, people actually sought out information confirming their own view that they were—not exactly slime-balls—but lazy, or slow-witted or not very athletic (Swann et al., 1989). And this isn’t some kind of self-hating thing; in this study even people with high self-esteem sought out information that confirmed their own negative self-views. It seems we like to be right, even at a cost to our self-image.
A study of online stock market investors has looked at how they gathered information about a prospective stock (Park et al., 2010). The researchers found the confirmation bias writ large. Investors mostly looked for information that confirmed their hunch about a particular stock. Those people who displayed the strongest confirmation bias were the most over-confident investors and