COLUMNS - 28 JUL 2015

Confirmation Bias: When Seeing Isn't Believing

Confirmation Bias: When Seeing Isn't Believing
Optical Illusion

The latest news shows how your friend was wrong and you were right. You were right about the bad driver being a woman. You were right about your analysis of what started the Biafran war. You were right about the power privatisation being a scam. One thing perturbs you though… while you tend to find yourself right about these things, others seem to have opposing opinions and you can’t seem to understand how they don’t see the errors of their ways.

What causes this?
Nobel price winner, Daniel Kahneman calls this 'Confirmation Bias'. Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. It lets you create your own pattern, your own structure, your own way of viewing the world.

What’s the underlying cause behind this effect?
It is because humans love patterns. Patterns give us a sense of direction and provide meaning to a world full of randomness. Also, patterns kept us alive in the past. They let humans know what time to plant, migrate, how to avoid dangers, etc. However, this same ability makes it easy for us to fall prey to the fallacy of creating our own patterns when they do not exist or ignoring every other information that fails to adhere to the patterns we see.

Have you got other examples that demonstrate this effect?
Yup. The Twittersphere during the recently conducted election was a particularly suitable platform to watch confirmation bias at work. Barring the ‘fencists’, two major political sides vociferously supported their candidates - you were either on the side of General Buhari or on the side of President Jonathan. For some, President Jonathan was a clueless corrupt leader, while for others, he was a misunderstood and persecuted leader who performed well in spite of virulent opposition. For some, General Buhari was a highly disciplined and impartial man who would bring change, for others, he was a totalitarian and an ethnic bigot who would islamise Nigeria. For some, he was a greedy man who didn’t just know when to quit, and for others he was a dogged and resilient figure - another Abraham Lincoln. The same information was available to both sides, but each picked what they wanted and interpreted accordingly.

During the state elections, the same display of confirmation bias was at work in an entirely different way. The statement by the Oba of Lagos was for some, evidence that Igbos would always face persecution and discrimination in other parts of the country. For others, the reaction of the Igbos was confirmation that the Igbos constantly blew any form of ethnic friction out of proportion and that a majority of their fears of ethnic reprisal were unfounded. Likewise, some thoroughly dismissed Chimmanda’s article on the issue as incendiary, while some saw her view as refreshingly reflective of their experience. The information available to both was the same, but the interpretations were starkly different. Unsurprisingly, these interpretations were drawn across ethnic lines.

From your examples, it seems confirmation bias only shows up when ethnicity is involved.
Ethnicity is but one of the few mediums through which we demonstrate confirmation bias. Anything that leads to a pattern encourages confirmation bias. It could be age, gender, language, choice of political party, religion, preference in technological device, etc. These all craft our experiences in unique ways, and when we encounter a new experience or information, we pick what conforms to our past experience and discard what opposes it.

New experiences are not the only thing vulnerable to confirmation bias - our old experiences also fall prey to it. So when we reminisce on old memories, we recall the things that support our beliefs and we forget the things that oppose them. If you miss your former partner, you remember the great times you shared, while you ignore the painful and hurtful experiences you had. When you fight with your colleague, you remember all the times he/she was incompetent, but you forget when he/she came through on a project.

Wow. I’ve experienced this! Is it this common?
Evidently, confirmation bias pervades almost every aspect of our lives. Every day, we come up different hypotheses of how things should function, then we work to prove theses right rather than prove it wrong. Even professionals - scientists, economists, public policy makers - are not free of this bias. A 2005 paper revealed strong evidence of confirmation bias amongst professional scientists. Also, French economist, Thomas Piketty, was accused of bending data to create results that fit into the hypothesis of his best-selling book ‘Capital in the 21st Century’.

If it’s this pervasive, how then do we limit its influence?
Most professionals try to limit confirmation bias by considering information that goes against their hypothesis. Scientists use randomised trials with control and treatment groups to account for both sides. Entrepreneurs and policy makers conduct a SWOT analysis to ensure they’ve been fully circumspect about every aspect of their business or policy - both the good and the bad.

Perhaps we can apply similar methods to our personal lives. To counteract confirmation bias in our daily lives, we could actively seek evidence to refute the argument or the pattern we see. If you’re reading an opinion piece, consider a contrary argument. If, based on your experience, you believe that all Igbo men love money, all Yoruba people are dirty and loud or all northerners are lazy, perhaps you should start looking at evidence to the contrary.

When you find yourself giving a self-congratulatory pat on the back for being right because some new information agrees with your opinion, pause, and genuinely search for informed fact that might debunk your smugly-held opinion. Transforming this into a habit is arduous, but like all habits, continued practice is essential to seeing beyond what you choose to see. With time, you might find that others are mostly right or wrong... and so are you.


Follow this Writer on Twitter @ChubaEzeks. Subscribe to read more articles here.


Chuba Ezekwesili

Chuba Ezekwesili

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