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Why We Must Let Go Of Our Confirmation Biases

23/05/2017 8:44 AM IST | Updated 23/05/2017 10:55 AM IST
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That humans are irrational in their decision making has been proven time and again by psychologists, often through elaborate experiments. One of the most commonly cited proofs of such behaviour is the confirmation bias. Wikipedia provides an easily understandable definition — confirmation bias is about people immediately favouring information which aligns with their preconceptions or personal beliefs (or immediately rejecting information which doesn't), regardless of whether the information is true or not. Let us look more closely at this definition.

The PK-Jaggu example

The 2014 movie 'PK,' one of the boldest Indian films, beautifully weaves the hazards of confirmation bias in its story-line.

[Spoiler alert about the movie 'PK' ahead]

The 2014 movie PK, one of the boldest Indian films, beautifully weaves the hazards of confirmation bias in its storyline. In the TV debate scene towards the end of the film, we get to know how it was this bias that led the character of Jaggu to mistrust Sarfaraz. Let's apply the important tenets of the above definition and explore the scenario further:

  1. Exposure to new information regarding a preconception/belief: Jaggu was partly in a troubled psychological state, having been exposed by her family and elders to a frightening preconception that Sarfaraz would dump her. In that state of mind, the new information for her was an unsigned letter written by a lover abandoning their loved one.
  2. "Immediately favouring the information": Jaggu immediately believed the letter to be Sarfaraz's, even though it did not carry his name and the boy who handed it to her wasn't someone she knew.
  3. "Whether the information is true or not": This is perhaps the most important aspect of confirmation bias. We need to remember that it does not matter if the information is eventually proven to be true or false. What is crucial is the almost blind and instantaneous manner in which we we trust it or reject it, without even attempting to verify it. If any new information fits well with our preconceptions, we almost never care to enquire further (which is what Jaggu did); and if it doesn't, we almost always reject it without analyzing it, however credible the source.

Reactions to a government decision

Now, using an everyday example of a policy announcement, let's look at how we enact this phenomenon almost daily while using social media or while reading/watching news about, say, a new policy. If the government or political party which implemented the particular policy is one we favour (for whatever reasons), we are likely to harbour the preconception that the particular govt/party "is good" and "does the right things". In such a scenario, if we happen to come across a news item or an article which criticizes the govt's policies using facts and rational analysis (this will be the 'new information'), our confirmation bias makes us simply ignore or reject that information, even if it happens to be true or correct, as it does not conform with our personal beliefs. Nowadays, few among us will even bother to read and understand articles and analyses critical of the political party or government we like. On the other hand, if we come across an article which praises our favorite party or government's decision, then we tend to instantaneously accept that new information as true without caring to go into its details or verify it further.

Ask yourself how many times you have rejected and cursed an article simply by looking at the headline, or the journalist's byline or the name of the publication.

Ask yourself how many times you have rejected and cursed an article simply by looking at the headline, or the journalist's byline or the name of the publication. In fact, often our bias will make us doubt even veteran experts and their credentials, instead of doubting the government or the party which made the policy they are criticising. In short, confirmation bias works here by making us almost blindly favour (or reject) a political decision just depending upon who made it, and not depending upon a balanced and well-argued discussion of the merits and demerits of the decision. Through instant acceptance or rejection of arguments, it prevents us from thinking more deeply about the issue at hand.

What should be done?

It is important to realize that confirmation bias is fairly common and is ingrained in human nature. But we do need to draw a line somewhere, especially because such individual biases, when they accumulate on a larger social scale, can lead to incorrect decision-making (especially regarding politics) that can affect a far larger number of people. It is one thing if our bias against a film director, for example, makes us not to want to see a perfectly good movie. It is a different thing, however, if our bias against a journalist or an intellectual makes us instantaneously reject a perfectly logical argument regarding the nation's politics or health system or economy. Or, if our bias in favour of some politician makes us blindly accept even their poorly argued assertions and decisions.

Instead of jumping to conclusions about serious issues in a matter of seconds, we should make our conclusions only after weighing all sides of an argument.

As responsible digital citizens, we need to cautiously tread the maddeningly insane social media. Instead of jumping to conclusions about serious issues in a matter of seconds, we should make our conclusions only after weighing all sides of an argument. It might even help to discuss the issue, in civil language, with others who disagree with our point of view, especially as one of the most common causes of persistent biases is our dependence on a select narrow group of people for advice and opinion. If, as is of late fashionably argued, soldiers are willing to die on the borders for the sake of the nation, then on our part we should at least be prepared to spend some extra time thinking and researching and listening to others, for the sake of the nation.

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