Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Confirmation bias motivation

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Confirmation bias:
What is CB and how does it influence our motivation and decision-making?
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Overview[edit | edit source]

"When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!" 
(John Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1852)

Have you noticed that some people seem to read the news, and come to a conclusion that not even the stories they reference seem to endorse?

People avert their eyes, and dismiss the facts that lay before them, because they seem convinced that something else is at the centre of the problem - for instance, their idea of science seems to lack mainstream evidence, or their interpretation of the world requires that you ignore many things widely known about it.

These peculiar behaviours result from a phenomenon known as Confirmation Bias (Nickerson, 1998) - shortened to CB hereafter - and this chapter seeks to answer a few key questions about it, using psychological theories and experimental research:

  • What is CB and is it intentional?
  • What are some of CB's underlying mechanisms?
  • What causes CB to persist?
  • Are their ways we accidentally accentuate CB?
  • And are there practices which minimise the effects of CB?
Throughout this chapter, boxes like these will discuss and

explain little scenarios from daily life which exemplify the

confirmation bias phenomena described.

What is CB, and is it intentional?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Confirmation bias is just one of many biases that result from shortcuts our mind takes to effectively process information.

CB is generally accepted as an unwitting selection and manipulation of information as it is collected: it does not typically comprise the behaviour of lawyers or debaters, where their goal from the outset is to artificially select information in order to make the strongest case for their side. In these situations, CB compounds a person’s capacity to confirm their prior bias, but that does not define CB per se. What defines CB is that we have a general tendency – a bias – to confirm information we have previously collected, even when we do not intend to (Nickerson, 1988).

CB becomes increasingly common when people or problems pertaining to us are involved in some way, because our family, friends, work or our beliefs can be affected by the conclusions the facts produce. Once we have made our first conclusion, then even if we intended to make that conclusion as objectively as possible, we are no longer able to behave as objectively from that point onward (Nickerson, 1998).

Stages where CB can occur:

·        You might start overconfident in your original belief, and you will likely remain confident in it with new information

·        When parsing information, you may see what you expect or know to look for easier than less well-known details

·        In searching for evidence, your biases may favour testing for hypothesis-supportive data, for confirmation purposes, instead of, or by avoiding disconfirming tests

·        Your interpretation of evidence may be based on previous conclusions, such that congruent information is considered trustworthy and incongruent info is unreliable

·        In finding new information, including incongruent arguments, you may not adjust your beliefs the appropriate amount

·        Even if you start to lose trust in your original position, you may not be able to think of any feasible replacements to it (Busemeyer, Medin & Hastie, 1995).



In research that tested the presence of CB, participants claimed that they would not be affected by their previous knowledge when inspecting new information, and also that they shouldn’t be affected by it: but from the results of those studies, it is evident that they were wrong on both accounts – people are affected by their previous knowledge, and there is now a wealth of evidence to suggest that they will definitely should be (Busemeyer, Medin & Hastie, 1995).

Tables[edit | edit source]

Table 1.

This is an Example of a Table with an APA Style Caption

Col. 1 Col. 2 Col. 3
C1R1 C2R1 C3R1
C1R2 C2R2 C3R2
C1R3 C2R3 C3R3

What are some of CB’s underlying mechanisms?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. People will turn over the 8 or red card when they are asked to prove if "all equal numbers have a red on their opposite side" in this version of the ''Wason selection task'', instead of picking the 3 or orange which are logically better choices.

The benefit of the doubt[edit | edit source]

One domain which seems to immediately hint that CB appears when it should not, is in instances of ambiguity: if one claimant describes factors they identify with, and one’s that their competitors do, then if the factors are hard to identify or measure, such as bias, scientific support and quality, a person will give the claimant the benefit of the doubt – and accept the given information as accurate. People seem to believe a hypothesis if the evidence is vague, rather than ignore or disbelieve it (Busemeyer, Medin & Hastie, 1995).

A diagnosing strategy[edit | edit source]

Some research has attempted to decipher where in our logical processes we have picked up this generalised bias for confirmation, and one particular experiment is thought to have identified one of the basic facets CB grows out from: the ‘Wason four-card selection task’.

When people could choose between two of four cards to prove whether a rule between all four of them is true, perhaps that every card with an odd number has a vowel, or inversely every even number has a consonant, people will choose turn a card that will confirm the given statement, rather than prove that no instance disconfirms it (Nickerson, 1988).

The ideal logical strategy, statistically or mathematically speaking, is to disconfirming alternatives based on Bayesian-like logic, where you can be sure a statement is true because you know that what would make it untrue has not been found to exist – in the scientific method, this is called falsifiability. Based on discussion in the literature about Wason’s selection task and his other experiments, humans have been showed to follow a diagnosing strategy instead – not to look for exceptions, but show that at least what is expected is true, and no more than that (Busemeyer, Medin & Hastie, 1995)....

What causes CB to persist?[edit | edit source]

Hypothesis preservation[edit | edit source]

By extension of granting the benefit of the doubt to vague or contentious situations, it has been found that people give confirmatory information more weight than disconfirming data: in experiments where participants received mixed evidence for capital punishment, those that were for, became more supportive than when they began, and those that were against, became more critical than when they began, seemingly discounting the contradictory information, and using the congruent information to bolster their opinions. When told that some of the presented information is subject to error, participants will select the information that is incongruent to be the supposedly erroneous data (Busemeyer, Medin & Hastie, 1995).

Is CB completely accidental?[edit | edit source]


Are there practices which minimise CB?[edit | edit source]


Test yourself on biases[edit | edit source]

Here are some example quiz questions - choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 Approximately how many neurons are in the human brain?

1,000,000 (1 million)
10,000,000 (10 million)
100,000,000 (100 million)
1,000,000,000 (1 billion)
10,000,000,000 (10 billion)

2 A typical neuron fires ________ per second.

1 to 4
5 to 49
50 to 99
100 to 199
200 to 499

For more information, see Help:Quiz.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

  • What are the take-home messages?

See also[edit | edit source]

This section consists of internal (wiki) links to relevant:

For example:

References[edit | edit source]

Nickerson, R. S. (1988). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2, 175-220.

Busemeyer, J., Medin, D. J. & Hastie, R. (1995). Decision Making from a Cognitive Perspective. [Edited chapter by Klayman, J.] The Psychology of Motivation and Learning, 22, 385-400. Academic Press Incorportated; San Diego, California.

External links[edit | edit source]

[Judiciously selected links to important other resources about this topic, presented in alphabetical order]