Has it ever occured to you that you might be wrong?: The problem with Confirmation Bias

Two months ago I adopted a puppy – a Norwegian Elkhound – and I had never seen or heard of this type of dog before. Now, all of a sudden, it seems like I am hearing about and seeing Norwegian Elkhounds everywhere! Has this ever happened to you, where you learn about something new and and all of a sudden this new thing seems to pop up everywhere, like it is gaining popularity all of a sudden? This experience is called frequency illusion and it is a natural trick our minds play on us. We learn about something new and all of a sudden we begin to notice its existence like never before.  It happens even more dramatically when this new thing relates to us in some way – for example if we buy a new car, discover a new author, or go to the concert of a new band. We think “wow, it seems like everyone is into Norwegian Elkhounds all of a sudden…”

Although this mind trick seems completely harmless, the trouble is that mind tricks such as this enable us to see things in oversimplified ways and can even cause us to develop stereotypes about people.

A very similar yet more active form of frequency illusion, called confirmation bias, involves subscribing to a certain belief and then subconsciously seeking out and favoring information that confirms this belief while rejecting sources that disprove it.   A good example of this can be seen in current disagreements about gun control in the United States.  When a shooting occurs in a public place, those in favor of gun ownership see evidence supporting a need for more gun ownership in the right hands, while those not in favor of gun ownership see evidence supporting a need for more gun control and less guns for people in general.

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Stereotypes come into play here when we have a certain belief regarding a characteristic of a group of people. For example, if a person holds a certain belief that blonde women are unintelligent, then they are more likely to hold onto instances that confirm this belief and disregard instances that disprove this belief.

What this tells us is that in order to avoid prejudging people, we must take control of our biases by actively acknowledging all sources presented to us – even those that tell us our beliefs are wrong – because we can only say that we are confident in our beliefs if we have truly read both sides of the story.

I know this information about frequency illusion and confirmation bias is a lot to process but don’t worry…I’m sure you’ll hear it again sometime. 😉