bias for confirmation

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This article is excerpted from the book, Antivirus For Your Mind.

 



This is one of "22 virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness and unnecessary negative emotions).

RESEARCHERS have found that our brains automatically seek evidence to confirm rather than disconfirm an already existing conclusion — whether we have any stake in it or not.

When you allow yourself to come to a conclusion that you aren’t very organized, for example, you’ll see and remember everything you do that confirms your conclusion even if you don’t want it to be true. And you’ll ignore times you were well-organized because they don’t confirm anything; they disconfirm.

When you decide your spouse is a slob, you’ll notice and remember (clearly) all the times your spouse acted like a slob, and you’ll ignore or explain away all the times your spouse was neat and clean. This bias for confirmation can ruin your mood far more often than is required or mandatory.

You get a flat tire and you think, “The day is ruined!” That’s giving up. That’s defeatism. That’s feeling helpless. Another version of this is, “Things are going badly.” What’s wrong with that? Can you tell? Instead of “things have gone badly up to this point,” when you say things are going badly you are projecting the badness into the future and defeating yourself ahead of time!

Coming to a conclusion prematurely alters your perception to some degree — at least it alters what you notice and remember — so what you see agrees with your conclusions. It’s a natural flaw of the human brain. And telling people your conclusions makes it even worse.

In an experiment, people were asked to determine the length of a line. One group was told to decide how long the lines were in their heads; another group was told to write it on a Magic Pad (pads for children that erase what you write when you lift up the top sheet) and then erase it before anyone saw it; and a third group was told to write their conclusions on a piece of paper, sign it, and give it to the researcher.

Then the subjects were given information indicating their first conclusion was wrong, and they were given an opportunity to change their decision. Those who decided in their heads changed their conclusions the easiest; those who wrote it on the Magic Pad were more reluctant to change their minds; and those who declared their conclusions publicly remained most convinced their first conclusion was correct.

Their feeling of certainty was an illusion; it wasn’t related to their conclusion’s accuracy. It was being influenced by another factor — how publicly they had made their conclusions.

Be careful about coming to conclusions too quickly — especially in public. Slow yourself down before you conclude anything negative or pessimistic. Remind yourself that your feeling of certainty might not mean anything. When your conclusion is giving you negative feelings, skepticism can make you feel better and act more sanely.

Confucius said wisdom was “when you know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it.”

I was lying down for a nap yesterday and noticed my back hurt. I immediately thought it was because I’d been sitting at the computer so much. This made me slightly despondent because I had a lot of work I wanted to do on the computer.

Then I checked that explanation and realized I really didn’t know what caused my back pain. That uncertainty opened the possibility that maybe it’s not sitting, but how I sit (posture). The uncertainty, then, did two good things. It made me feel less discouraged by the back pain, and more open to seeking better answers than the first stupid thing that popped into my head.

Uncertainty is good. We think thoughts with more certainty than is justified, and we do it a lot. Awhile back, a little story circulated on the internet that was supposedly a radio conversation “released by the Chief of Naval Operations.” Here’s how it went:

Radio Number One: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.Radio Number Two: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to South to avoid a collision.

Number One: This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Number Two: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Number One: THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER ENTERPRISE. WE ARE A LARGE WARSHIP OF THE U.S. NAVY. DIVERT YOUR COURSE NOW!

Number Two: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

This incident never happened, but it illustrates the value of uncertainty. The Navy captain concluded he was talking to a stubborn and ignorant person who was willfully ignoring an important order. He jumped to a conclusion quickly and his anger narrowed his focus too much to reconsider. It is a similar mistake we all make. Learn to suspend judgement. Learn to delay coming to conclusions.

But, you might be thinking, if you must know a lot before coming to a conclusion, you won’t form many opinions. Yes, that’s right. You should do your best — against your own natural propensity — to leave your opinion undecided when you don’t know enough to decide correctly.

When you feel bad, ask yourself:

1. “What am I thinking that is giving me these feelings?”

2. “Is this absolutely, positively true?” Ask the question of every negative thought. “Do I know for a fact it’s true?”

Then your emotions will fit the reality of your situation. You think things with more certainty than is justified by the facts. That certainty can be discouraging, upsetting, or demoralizing.

In 1940, Slavomir Rawicz was sent to a Siberian prison camp for twenty-five years. He eventually did the impossible and escaped. Then he did the impossible again and walked 4000 miles through Siberia, across the Gobi desert, and over the Himalayas, all as a wanted fugitive, and finally made it to India and freedom. But all that was to come later. While he was still imprisoned, he was asking around, seeing if he could find anyone who might be willing to come with him.

“If I could one day think up a plan of escape,” he asked a friend of his, “would you come with me?”

“No,” his friend replied, “I would come with you if there was a chance, but the snow and the cold would kill us before we could get anywhere, even if the Russians didn’t catch us.”

Here was certainty about a demoralizing conclusion — and the conclusion was wrong. The Russians didn’t catch them, the snow and the cold didn’t kill them. In his excellent book, How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, Thomas Gilovich wrote,

Perhaps the most general and most important mental habit to instill is an appreciation of the folly of trying to draw conclusions from incomplete and unrepresentative evidence. An essential corollary of this appreciation should be an awareness of how often our everyday experience presents us with biased samples of information.

Have you ever drawn conclusions from incomplete evidence? When I was making cold calls for radio interviews, I made about fifteen calls for every interview I landed. When I called, I usually left a voice mail.

They’d call back and grill me. When I first started doing it, this made me feel bad. So what did I do? I looked into my thinking to find mistakes. I used the most powerful mental tool known to Man: The Antivirus For The Mind. These are some of the thoughts I had:

“This is too hard.

“I’m never going to make it.”

“Nobody is interested.”

“Nobody cares about improving their lives.”

“I can’t take the strain.”

After I wrote them down, I realized these conclusions weren’t necessarily true. My negative feelings subsided and my success rate improved (I came across better because I was in a better mood).

When I first started public speaking, I had to do the same thing. My explanation for why I couldn’t be a public speaker was false helplessness: “I’m constitutionally shy, always have been, always will be.” I was overgeneralizing (thought-mistakes often overlap with each other). I thought, “I’m a shy person” rather than “I’m shy in certain circumstances.” Or better yet, “I’m only nervous because it is unfamiliar.”

Since I was nineteen, I wanted to give public speeches, but I knew I couldn’t. Some people can, I thought, and some can’t. I was one who couldn’t. That’s a permanent explanation — an overgeneralization.

“Permanent” explanations can defeat you as completely as a 90 foot wall of concrete. You can see this very clearly in true-life survival stories. It is interesting to see what people do in their minds that helps them make it out alive. One common denominator is they do not overgeneralize. They don’t decide it is hopeless. They don’t say “Nothing has worked yet, so nothing will ever work.” They retain a glimmer of uncertainty about their own pessimistic assumptions, and so they keep trying, and that is what saves them.

It would be equally instructive to know what went through the minds of those who didn’t survive. No doubt some of them made pessimistic overgeneralizations that prevented them from taking actions that might have saved them.

People make all-or-nothing assumptions about their own attitude. They are “just not a cheerful person.” Or they can’t become a perfectly cheerful person so they don’t do anything that would improve their moods a little.

I remember Martin Seligman saying we don’t really need to cultivate pessimism, however useful it may occasionally be, because each person has ups and downs, and during the downs gets plenty of pessimistic views of their life.

Temporary pessimism might be useful, which means you don’t have to be positive all the time. In fact, it might be a bad thing if you were.

If you think you should never be in a bad mood, that’s all-or-nothing thinking. It's also musterbating (using shoulds and musts). I would bet many “positive” people feel that they must be positive all the time, and that somehow when they’re in a bad mood or grumpy or pessimistic, it is bad and wrong and invalidates them.

The idea that it is okay and maybe even GOOD to be pessimistic once in awhile is an optimistic view of pessimism. You can even feel good about feeling bad. You can be positive about being negative!

If you can’t change the thing itself, you can still change how you deal with it, how you respond to it, what you do with it. Some things are not changeable, but you can still do something about it (to compensate).

Anyway, as interesting and entertaining as all this may be, I've gotten off the point a little. We're talking about the thought-mistake "bias for confirmation." Whatever you think or conclude or decide, it can have an influence on what your perceive in the future, and THAT can have an influence on how motivated or demoralized you are. So pay attention to what you are concluding and never conclude something negative or discouraging unless you are one hundred percent certain of it, and that will rarely be the case.

See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.

This article is excerpted from the book, Antivirus For Your Mind.

Author: Adam Khan
author of the books, Self-Help Stuff That Works and Antivirus For Your Mind
and creator of the blog:
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