Thursday, February 25, 2016

Confirmation Bias

Recently, I’ve been reading a somewhat random book that I picked up called, “The Secret Language of Leadership” by Stephen Denning.  The book is competently written and contains some interesting ideas about using story-telling as a leadership tool. The book isn’t bad; it does have some practical advice, and the author certainly practices what he preaches. My only issue is that I’ve heard most of it before in some way, shape, or form in other books I’ve already read.

One such thing that I’ve heard before, but got me thinking nonetheless, in this book was something known as the confirmation bias. This bias comes into effect when a person receives information either supporting or contradicting an existing viewpoint and can cause that person to incorporate the former and disregard the latter.

Consider the dangers of flying or the possibility of shark attacks. Both are overemphasized in the media and are so statistically rare that they hardly warrant the fear they induce. True, their occurrence certainly isn’t impossible, but the risks come into question when in relation to more realistic and likely dangers such as cancer or heart disease.

Hearing about a plane crash or a shark attack in the news puts the whole nation on edge. For people who have a preexisting phobia of one of the two, a major news story could be hard to swallow. They may have more trouble getting on a plane or being near the ocean. An event like one of these is confirmation to those people that planes and sharks really are that dangerous.

On the other hand, if there was a news story bringing forth data that shows how incredibly unlikely a shark attack is or how cars are multiple times more dangerous per mile than planes, people with a phobia aren’t necessarily going to be any less frightened.

To get away from the whole life-and-death or injury scenario, confirmation bias is also prevalent in more common situations. In one such case, I turn to a New York Times article titled “How Confirmation Bias Can Lead to a Spinning of Wheels” by Justin Wolfers. Within the article is a link to the New York Times political forecasting program nicknamed “Leo”. When the ‘spin’ button is clicked, the program counts how many Senate elections will be won by Democrats and Republicans.  Each result is somewhat different for every spin.

Admittedly, one of the two groups (I won’t say which) came up a few times in a row, so I kept clicking ‘spin again’ until the outcome I preferred was finally reached. Then I returned to the article to discover that that’s exactly the actions that were expected of me. Wolfers shows the data of thousands of other people who have used Leo and the tens of thousands spins performed. The results conclude that a person is more likely to keep spinning if one outcome or the other has yet to occur. Basically, we are waiting for confirmation that our initial viewpoint is correct while disregarding the rest.

Stephen Denning gives some insight into what causes the confirmation bias. A possible positive reason is that our minds are trying to disregard sources that we determine not to be credible. To get a little more into the ‘why’ of the bias, Denning references a study by Drew Weston, a psychologist at Emory University. Weston made use of an fMRI brain scanner and discovered that when we receive contradictory evidence to our current viewpoint, the section of the brain we would expect to activate, the one that takes part in reasoning,  does not. Rather, the parts of the brain that deal with emotion and resolving conflict did (24-25).

Furthermore, it seems the brain responds in another way. Denning quotes Weston by writing, “Once the participants had seen a way to interpret contradictory statements as supporting their original position, the part of the brain involved in reward and pleasure became active, and the conclusion was ‘massively reinforced . . . with elimination of negative emotional states and the activation of positive ones” (25). In other words, the brain encourages this behavior, and thus, we have the confirmation bias.

To conclude, the confirmation bias is sometimes positive and sometimes negative. We often disregard contradicting information, and this may either help us weed out incorrect sources or ignore good sources our brains don’t approve of.  The brain is also self-reinforcing of this bias by bringing us pleasure when we successfully discount certain information. It’s worth considering where confirmation bias appears in daily life so we can be more receptive to other information and diverse points of view.

1 comment:

  1. There were two abrupt segues at the beginning of this piece where I'd have liked further explanation/comment. The first is on why you started to read Denning's book. That didn't come out of any conversation we had. So I am curious about the motivation that did prompt that activity.

    The next one is on moving from storying telling as leadership, and idea interesting in its own right, to confirmation bias. Perhaps there is a connection between the two that is evident. I don't want to deny the possibility. I only want to deny that it wasn't evident to me in reading your post.

    The bulks of what you wrote about was on confirmation bias. I'd like to relate that to Model 1 and Model 2, in other words, to something we are both already familiar with. But before I do that let me say that one of my good colleagues on campus is the Information Literacy Librarian. Her name is Lisa. Lisa's mission in the Library is to combat confirmation bias. Information literacy is about recognizing the psychological issues. And then finding reasonable ways to address them. Alas, there is a tendency for all of us to come up short.

    Knowing this, I tried to consider the issue myself in a blog post on our political attitudes. It is called, Do I have to consume conservative media to consider myself thoughtful? So there is no doubt - I'm liberal, certainly relative to Fox News, though not as left as some others. You might find the post interesting and relevant - especially given that this year is a Presidential Election. Confirmation bias matters a lot in that context.