The Ever Present Problem of Confirmation Bias

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We all believe what we believe and typically want what we believe to be true. Not only do we want it to be true, we believe what we already believe is true, otherwise we would believe something else. In short, we think we are right and other people are wrong, unless of course they agree with us.

It isn’t fun having your beliefs challenged. When your beliefs are challenged you have a few options: you can bury your head in the sand or you can try to defend what you believe. But maybe there is a third option, a better option. Instead of defaulting to defending your view you embark on a journey for the truth. Rather than confirming your already determined belief you are looking for the true belief.

When we move into defend mode we fall very quickly into the trap of confirmation bias – accepting data that confirms our view and ignoring data that challenges it.

The first time I can recall becoming aware of this propensity in myself was in college. I was studying the Bible with another student at Harding and as we would discuss (nice word for argue) about various biblical matters, I would get out a concordance (yes, an actual book!) and look up various words. I would toss out the verses that seemed to agree with him and make sure to show him the verses that seemed to back up my view. I hoped he wouldn’t know about or notice those other verses. Something in me told me it was wrong but that way okay, I justified, because I knew my conclusions were the right ones and so I just had to have the right data to back it up.

That is how confirmation bias works and that is how, if we are remotely aware of it, we justify it. That’s the worst part – when we justify this to ourselves because we believe our cause is the noble one. Noble causes make easy justification for bending and twisting things to ensure that the righteous conclusion (in our minds) is reached. But righteousness conclusions don’t want anything to do with unrighteous processes.

What if confirmation bias starts with the faulty assumption that what I already believe is 100% right in all aspects? What if a better starting point was a search for truth rather than a search for confirmation? Remember, most of us already think we are right.

Only then can we engage in a process of learning rather than a process of confirmation of what we already think we know. There will be some things that get confirmed over and over and we can be even more certain about those things when our attempt is not to confirm a predetermined outcome/belief but to find truth.

Be aware of confirmation bias. Be aware of your approach in what it is you are searching for: confirmation of a predetermined conclusion vs the truthful conclusion. This is hard work but it is worthwhile work. Thanks for reading!

5 Responses

  1. I once told an elder, ‘Jim, I believe my opinions are the best in the world [long pause while his jaw dropped and he picked himself up off the floor], because as soon as someone convinces me he has a better one, I adopt it!’ And I believe most people are this way – except for those whose hard heads and deaf ears screen out any thing that challenges that opinion.

  2. There is a lot of truth here.
    We often read scriptures to confirm what we already believe, instead of reading the scriptures to believe what is written.
    Part of this is past righteousness, in that we can’t be wrong. because that would make those who came before us wrong and this would mean we aren’t the One True Church.
    We must all be wrong in order to be righteous.
    It is this that Jesus confronts when He says, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
    Of course there were none righteous before God, but those that believed they were righteous would not be saved as they didn’t believe they needed saving.
    If we believe we are right, then we are self-righteous.
    Only the lost can be saved and will be saved.

    1. A hard-line cofC member explained it to me as you can’t change your ideas on any matter because if someone were converted based on that idea and you changed, then they might lose their faith. This reiterated that they converted people to other things but Jesus.

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