June 30

Why We See What We Want to See: The Extraordinary Power of Confirmation Bias

English philosopher Francis Bacon articulated the concept of confirmation bias before the term even existed. He said,

The human understanding, when it has once adopted an opinion, draws all things … to support and agree with it.

The saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is one of the oldest idioms in the English language. I can sort of see why it still rings somewhat true. Old habits are indeed hard to break.

For years, I’ve had the habit of reading book reviews and author bios online first, before reading a book. Seems like a good thing to do, right? It can help me steer clear of poor material and focus my time on reading content that is sort of pre-approved. The truth is the filtering based on reviews comes with a downside.

If a review, for instance, mentions something in the book that contradicts my belief-system, or if I think the author has strong opinions that are contrary to my own, there is an exceedingly good chance that book will remain unread by me in this lifetime. Sure, this way I can ignore books pushed by the crazies and the cults, but, in the process, I might also be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Confirmation Bias

By staying within the “approved zone”, I’m essentially closing myself off to other legitimately logical thoughts and opinions for the sole reason they don’t align with my version of the truth. Psychologists call this the confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias, a cognitive bias, is our tendency to seek, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses while ignoring or downplaying contradictory evidence.

The trouble with confirmation bias isn’t just that it keeps us close-minded. It also triggers some of our poorest decisions.

Confirmation bias and decision-making

Like the time I found a juicer I liked on sale on Amazon. I wanted it. Impulsively. I sensed the dopamine hit in my brain at the thought of this shiny new object. Now, did I honestly evaluate why I needed the juicer? No. Amazon wasn’t trying to sell it to me. I was the salesperson in person in charge, trying to convince my own self.

I focused on the positive reviews that touted the benefits of juicing, especially the ones that drew a straight line from the juicer’s capabilities to Jack LaLanne’s longevity and wellness. I was soon convinced the juicer was the missing magic bullet to my family’s health. Once I had it, we were going to be transformed into that family — the smiling, radiant lot like the ones you may spot on the cover of a travel magazine posing in front of a pristine, sandy beach background.

Here’s what I did not do. I didn’t pay attention to the negative reviews, especially the ones that seem to directly address me:

“You don’t need another gadget, because your mixer can already do this.” Or,

“Juicing is great for veggies but not necessarily for fruit. And it would be easier to sell the Eiffel Tower to a simpleton than convince a teen to drink a ginger, horseradish, celery juice.” Or,

“The prep and clean up takes time, and so realistically the juicer would only get occasional use, if that.”

Confirmation quests instead of truth quests

I chose not to believe these reviews because they were contrary to what I wanted to be true. Not only was I not objective, I went out of my way to convince myself I was right. That is confirmation bias in its full glory.

In his book Better Decisions, Fewer Regrets, author Andy Sandler articulates how confirmation bias leads to poor decisions.

Most of us want to be proven right more than we want to know what’s true. We aren’t on truth quests. We’re on confirmation quests. Confirmation bias explains in part why moms and their daughters arrive at opposite conclusions about the same boy. Theists look at nature and conclude design and a designer, while nontheists see neither. For Democrats, President Obama could do no wrong. For Republicans, everything he did was wrong. Of course, neither was correct. That probably triggered your confirmation bias.

What confirmation bias looks like

According to a researchers’ analysis of Nielsen data, only 2 percent of Democrats watched Fox News and only 4 percent of Republicans watched MSNBC and CNN. We surround ourselves with like-minded individuals and seek echo chambers to further strengthen our preconceived notions.

We tend to overplay information that conforms to our beliefs and underplay or outright dismiss contradictory evidence. Take, for instance, my juicer saga mentioned earlier. I wanted to have nothing to do with the negative reviews, because they were at odds with what I really, truly wanted to believe. In confirmation bias, we cherry pick information that supports what we want to say or hear.

Why do we exhibit confirmation bias?

When we believe in something, and we hear evidence to the contrary, it makes us feel like we’re either uninformed or, worse, liars. Neither of those are labels we’d want for ourselves.

Confirmation bias protects our self-esteem. It lets us stay in our bubbles because once we challenge deeply held views, we put our very identities at risk. That’s a bridge too far for most of us.

Countering confirmation bias

Here are a few tips to help challenge confirmation bias.

Stop the selling

Andy Sandler argues that the moment we find ourselves selling something, we should hit pause, because “good decisions rarely need selling.”

When we try to convince ourselves of something, it’s usually because it is something we want to do, rather than something we ought to do.

Remember Maslow

Poor decision-making is almost always exacerbated when we’re in physical distress. Lack of sleep or hunger can make us perform sub-optimally and send us back to our comfort zones. This is why, for example, it is never a good idea to shop when hungry because you don’t have to put much effort into selling yourself the pack of pickle chips or cookies.

Seek diverse opinions

Encourage open dialogue and engage with individuals who hold different viewpoints. Actively seek out sources and perspectives that challenge your own. Yes, this is easier said than done, but it’s worth the effort.

Do a premortem

Assume that a decision you’re about to make will go wrong (not easy, I agree, especially if you’re an optimist.) Then, analyze what would cause it to go wrong. This kind of premortem will help you find holes before you decide rather than after, and in the process will easily flush out confirmation bias.


In a one-man show titled “Confirmation”, Chris Thorpe, a British performance artist with firmly left-leaning views, asks the audience to see things through the eyes of a second character he plays, named Glen.

Glen is a self-described proud National Socialist, who isn’t afraid of the label Nazi. The point of the play is for the audience to try to put themselves in Glen’s shoes “no matter how much they might pinch.

The play helps the audience uncover Glen’s thoughts and opinions, which, no doubt, most would find disagreeable. And the objective of the play is not to change people’s identities or their concept of right and wrong. Neither the protagonist nor the audience turn into fascists, because at some point Thorpe says, “I need to guard my own certainty now,” he says, “because I’ve realized it helps me defend my tolerance.”

Putting ourselves in other shoes is one way of getting rid of confirmation bias. It can help us become more open-minded and tolerant when required.

But most importantly, understanding that we’re prone to confirmation bias and taking steps to negate the inherent bias means we will make fewer bad decisions. Which, in turn, means fewer regrets in life.

Do I regret it? Yes. Would I do it again? Probably.



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