Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs. For example, if you believe that during a full moon there is an increase in admissions to the emergency room where you work, you will take notice of admissions during a full moon but be inattentive to the moon when admissions occur during other nights of the month. A tendency to do this over time unjustifiably strengthens your belief in the relationship between the full moon and accidents and other lunar effects.
This tendency to give more attention and weight to data that support our beliefs than we do to contrary data is especially pernicious when our beliefs are little more than prejudices. If our beliefs are firmly established on solid evidence and valid confirmatory experiments, the tendency to give more attention and weight to data that fit with our beliefs should not lead us astray as a rule. Of course, if we become blinded to evidence truly refuting a favored hypothesis, we have crossed the line from reasonableness to closed-mindedness.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that people generally give an excessive amount of value to confirmatory information, that is, to positive or supportive data. The “most likely reason for the excessive influence of confirmatory information is that it is easier to deal with cognitively” (Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life). It is much easier to see how data support a position than it is to see how they might count against the position. Consider a typical ESP experiment or a seemingly clairvoyant dream: Successes are often unambiguous or data are easily massaged to count as successes, while negative instances require intellectual effort to even see them as negative or to consider them as significant. The tendency to give more attention and weight to the positive and the confirmatory has been shown to influence memory. When digging into our memories for data relevant to a position, we are more likely to recall data that confirms the position.
Researchers are sometimes guilty of confirmation bias by setting up experiments or framing their data in ways that will tend to confirm their hypotheses.
- Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking: illusion of understanding (illuminutti.com)
- Ask the Advisor: How Confirmation Bias Can Affect Your Investment Strategies (savings.com)
- Confirmation Bias – Letter to the Editor (abbreviatedknowledge.wordpress.com)
- Confirmation Bias and Decision Making (smallbizlabs.com)
- Group think, false consensus, and confirmation bias the trifecta for bad decision making (virtuosityofgames.wordpress.com)