Tag Archives: confirmation bias

Confirmation Bias on My Way to Spearfish, South Dakota

Confirmation bias is an insidious cognitive process that typically travels just below our awareness. Here’s how it worked for me today.

I’m on my way to Spearfish, SD to do a “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling” workshop tomorrow and keynote on Friday. My belief is that it’s always hard to pack up and get everything ready and make it to the airport. Usually I hold a negative confirmation bias in my mind. This negative bias involves a belief or working hypothesis that the world will conspire against me and stress me out in the process of trying to arrive at the airport in a timely manner.

First, I’m in my office and about to turn off my computer and my office phone rings. Rarely does my phone ring anymore and it’s even more rare that I answer it with only 10 minutes left before my pre-planned office departure time. But my impulses take over and I answer it. It’s the associate dean and our development officer wondering if I have a few minutes to talk. They rush down and we meet for a few minutes, which puts me only slightly behind as I head to the copy machine for, of course, some last minute copies.

Second, Rita is driving me to the airport. She asks me what route she should take (please note: Rita almost never asks ME what route to take and so this is an anomaly in and of itself). I rise to the bait and tell her my quickest route to the airport.

Third, my best route to the airport begins crumbling when we have to stop for a train.

Fourth, my best route has a back-up option in case of a train. We take it. It leads us directly into road construction.

Fifth, we circumnavigate (I love that word) the road construction and make it to the airport.

Sixth, my confirmation number is in a “pre-check-in” email on my cell phone. I pull out my phone and sort through 53 emails, twice, before concluding that it has apparently disappeared.

Seventh, I get checked in anyway and head through security and upstairs only to discover that Liquid Planet’s espresso machine is broken and I can’t have my pre-flight white chocolate mocha and . . .

Eighth, I have to drag my bags and myself downstairs to use the restroom because the road construction has taken over the upstairs airport bathroom.

But now I’m here, sitting and waiting to board my flight and marveling at how today, for some odd reason, I was able to monitor the universe’s push-back and yet not get sucked into a bad mood. Of course, given that I saw the confirmation bias coming, I was able to simultaneously notice the universe’s positive encouragement as well. After all:

1. The associate dean and development officer are two of the nicest people on the planet and they wanted me to speak at a fancy College of Education and Human Sciences event and that sounds like fun.
2. The copy machine worked perfectly and there was NO LINE!
3. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Missoula as I bicycled back and forth from the University on my perfectly functional bike that didn’t get a flat tire.
4. Rita shared half an avocado with me while at home.
5. The toilet flushed without incident.
6. The car started without incident.
7. The circumnavigation went well and it reminded me of how much I like the word circumnavigation. I was also reminded that Rita is an excellent driver and stupendous conversationalist.
8. The guy at the United Airlines desk was nice and efficient.
9. I got to be in the TSA pre-screening category (not that it makes any difference in the Missoula airport).
10. Instead of getting a white chocolate mocha that I didn’t need I got exercise on my way to and from the restroom.
11. I still got here in time to write this post.
12. And, I’m on my way to Spearfish, South Dakota to have an excellent time with some cool professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping others.

Seriously, it would be difficulty to conclude, despite my usual negative confirmation bias about trips to the airport, that this day (and perhaps my whole life) is anything other than infused with most excellent good fortune.

I wish you all the best with your own confirmation bias challenges. Your homework assignment is to intentionally count the positive events in your life and intentionally not count or dwell too much on the less-positive events.

Tomorrow’s Election and Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is one of the most ubiquitous psychological phenomena on planet Earth. If you don’t know what it is, you should learn. And if you do know what it is, you should start paying even more attention to it. It’s everywhere and it affects everyone.

I think the all-time best description of confirmation bias is captured by an old Yogi Berra story. One day, when a player on Yogi’s team was called out on a close play at second base in a crucial game, Yogi went charging onto the field to protest the call. The umpire explained that he, unlike Yogi, was an objective observer and that he, unlike Yogi, had been only about 5 feet from the play, while Yogi had been over 100 feet away, seated in the dugout. When Yogi heard the umpire’s logic, he became EVEN MORE ANGRY than before and snapped back, “Listen ump, I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it” (adapted from Leber, 1991).

There’s little doubt about the relevance of confirmation bias for tomorrow’s election. Liberal bloggers and pollsters see data suggesting an Obama victory while conservative media personalities counter-predict a Romney landslide.

As in the Yogi Berra example, confirmation bias explains why two presumably objective individuals can observe the same incident and draw starkly differing conclusions. After all, it’s impossible to suspend our personal beliefs and rely exclusively on logical data. We all naturally interpret and spin the data. Republicans look at recent economic figures and claim they’re caused by failed economic policies. Democrats look at the same data and note that Obama inherited a dismal economic situation and that we’d be far worse off if he hadn’t provided a stimulus and increased government spending.

The confirmation bias is everywhere all at once. If I were to wake up one morning believing abortion is murder, immigrants are illegals, and gays are sinful—my perceptions and behaviors would follow . . . and I’ll be more inclined to view individuals with darker skin as intruders who threaten my lifestyle, I’ll reject the mainstream media as having a liberal bias, and believe deeply that Fox News offers fair and balanced reporting.

But if somehow a miracle occurs and I wake up the next day believing women have the right to make their own medical choices, that many immigrants are just seeking a better life like my Italian forebears, and that gay-ness is a natural biological disposition—you can imagine how I might feel when I turn on my radio and accidentally listen to the Glen Beck show. It’s likely that I’ll pick a art his statements and question the source and validity of his facts.

My point is not to claim that one side has all the correct answers and if you think that, you’ve been drinking far too much Kool-Aid. Instead, my point is that we should all look at ourselves and question our biases. In fact, as you read this blog your response to the words on the screen will be affected by confirmation bias . . . and to the extent that you find yourself agreeing with or debating my position will likely have more to do with you and your beliefs and personal history than the accuracy or truthfulness of this blog.

As a final example, let’s look at the potential Presidential election outcome tomorrow. If you’re a liberal and Romney is elected you’ll be more likely to wonder if Tagg’s ownership of Ohio voting machines and voter suppression had more to do with the outcome than Romney’s desirability or credibility. On the other hand, if you’re a conservative and Obama wins, you may be inclined to blame it on voter fraud or an ignorant electorate. And if I’m correct and confirmation bias is ubiquitous, you may already be preparing your explanation for tomorrow’s election outcome.

Remember these words: “I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it” and try your best to cope with tomorrow’s results—either way.