You Are Right According to Confirmation Bias

You Are Right, According to Confirmation Bias

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Why do we believe what we believe? Not just when it comes to health and wellness, by the way. This question seeps into every corner of our lives, from past history to current politics, family lore to eye-witnessed drama. We believe what our senses tell us to be true: what we see (or think we see), hear, read, and live. And once we become believers, it’s remarkably difficult to shift perspective. 

Not impossible, though, which is what this NPR piece taps into. Using the deep-seated and once highly controversial worry that vaccines caused autism, the story explores one parent’s journey from vaccine skeptic to proponent. It wasn’t that she was looking to be swayed in any particular direction, but rather that, once swayed, she found herself down a rabbit hole of reinforcing information. As Cailin O’Connor — a philosopher, mathematician, and expert in how information is spread through social networks — puts it in the article, “Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe, probably you have no direct evidence of yourself. You have to trust other people to find those things out, get the evidence and tell it to you.” 

Our solution to not bearing witness to everything we need to know (and therefore believe) has been solved by the written word and images, too. For centuries, humans haven’t had to be present in order to absorb information; in the modern era, technology has made that fact evermore true. This is why a concept like truth —applied to everything from history to current events — is so critical, and also why we have increasingly come to recognize its elusiveness. Fake news isn’t new; it’s just an exaggerated version of a singular perspective that has found new life across media, social and 24/7 mainstream alike. 

Ultimately, the debate over whether a nugget of information is actually fact versus fiction has landed all of us in the quicksand of confirmation bias. It’s a term you’ve likely heard and, if you haven’t, you will very soon. Neuroscientist Tali Sharon defines confirmation bias as succinctly as anyone I have heard recently: it’s our tendency to take in any kind of data that reinforces our prior convictions and to disregard data that does not conform to what we already believe. 

We all do it. For sure I am guilty. I just turned in a final book manuscript and found myself fighting confirmation bias every step of the way. If I wanted to make a point and wanted data to back up my assertion, I could always find a study to bolster my idea. How about the opposing view? Yeah, sure, there was a study (sometimes multiple, sometimes an onslaught) that I could choose to ignore or dismiss. It took everything in me to be even-handed and not just find evidence of what I wanted to hear. And that struggle applies to every corner of my day, from rationalizing a personal choice (should I eat the ice cream?) to parenting (you want to go where?!). There’s an argument, a confirmation bias, for almost everything.

When it comes to health information — for yourself or your child, in this instance there’s little distinction — we do ourselves no favors by ignoring confirmation bias. Yes, it can be scary to hear a new “fact” from a person you really trust. But that person may be passing along misinformation, have gotten it wrong or, worse, they may just be full of it. Want to search out information on your own? STAT News has some tips on how to do this well. Step one is to always look for another version, even if you secretly don’t want to find one.