Does confirmation bias make stubborn, obstinate hypocrites of us all ?


Isn’t it annoying when you are in a meeting  and you give everyone your persuasive arguments why your ideas are right and not everyone agrees. It is hard to believe that  some people can be so blind, so stupid, so hypocritical and so opinionated. Oh well some people can’t see the wood for the tress. Thank goodness we are not like that.  No, we are very different we weigh up both sides of the argument, looking at all the pros and cons before rushing to judgment , or do we?

I am reading a fascinating book by Jonathan Haidt called the ‘Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Religion and Politics’. This book argues that we are all victims of  our own conformation bias far more than we believe. That unconsciously we scan for arguments and events that support our view of the world. When there is an idea that supports our view of the world we ask ourselves, ‘ Can I believe this?’ in the vast majority of cases we answer, Yes. If it is an idea we don’t agree with we ask ourselves, ‘Must I agree with this? In the vast majority of cases we answer, No.  And thus whilst we think we have weighed up the facts of an issue we haven’t really. All we have done is reinforced what we believe without analysis  and without challenge. I do this all the time. I see a news article with a title I agree with and scan it quickly to see how much the author agrees with me. Skimming over ideas that challenge my own. If the article has a title  I don’t agree with I am less likely to read it and if I do read it , it is to confirm how wrong the author is.  Hands up if you do the same. Come on tell the truth and shame the devil.

Confirmation bias is why two people can be presented with the same set of facts and come up with completely different opinions.  An obvious example is people that believe in psychic phenomena and those that don’t. Both sides can come up with reams of reasons why they are right.  Each side can easily knock down the other sides argument with counter argument after counter argument. Both sides not understanding why those with a different view can’t see the truth. And the reason for this is simple. If you believe in ghosts or other psychic phenomena you will discount any story or act which discredits psychic phenomena but those that don’t believe in psychic phenomena will just as easily discount any event that may support psychic phenomena.

So maybe when we are castigating others for being stubborn, one eyed and obstinate we need to look at ourselves first. Are we in fact being equally one eyed and stubborn. And if so what belief or agenda are we protecting.  Are we just looking for things to confirm our world view or are we truly looking at both sides of an argument.

How can we reduce confirmation bias 

  • Be aware of the views that you hold and why you hold them. For example when my partner says we need to weed the garden. If I am tired and don’t want to garden without thinking I will look for arguments to support not gardening for example the weather is not good, the garden is not that bad.
  • Challenge yourself to think of counter arguments for ideas that you think self evident with a generous spirit putting yourself in the shoes of those that hold a view counter to you.  
  • Don’t assume that  what is obvious to you is obvious to others

Luckily all of us sometimes change our mind. How boring the world would be if we were stuck with the same beliefs all our lives.  I am most likely to change my mind when a person I respect presents a view that challenges mine.  So whilst confirmation bias makes us resistant to changing our point of view it does not set our opinion in stone.  So here are some things you can do to circumvent confirmation bias and change a person point of view .

  •   Don’t use threatening or insulting language. Saying your idiot might make you feel good in the moment but we won’t help you win an argument
  • Use generous inquiry and  and open questions to find out what beliefs lie behind people’s arguments. For example, I am interested in your views on this subject tell me more rather than  why don’t you ,…. 
  • Don’t just discuss what you consider the facts are, have a respectful discussion about why you believe what you believe.  
  • Pinpoint areas mutual agreement 
  • Introduce your ideas in a way that builds on the already established areas of mutual agreement.
  • Discuss openly and respectfully underpinning believes that might lie underneath the original objection.  For example it sounds that your objection goes beyond what you first mentioned can you talk to me about what you believe a little more.
  • Once you have found the root of the objection challenge it in a respectful way being prepared to be challenged yourself. You raise some very interesting points and I take on board the following I also believe that the following points I have raised are valid because ….
  • If the other person still does not agree with  you don’t let things degenerate into a personalized argument. Highlight where agreement  has been made . This way you leave the option open to have another discussion.  

Most of all, don’t assume that others are the problem you just might be the stubborn , obstinate hypocrite.

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2 Responses to Does confirmation bias make stubborn, obstinate hypocrites of us all ?

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