Confirmation Bias – The Silent Killer

  I’ve seen the phrase “The Silent Killer” multiple times in the last week or so and figured it would be a catchy tag phrase for the discussion of Confirmation Bias. For those visiting that don’t know bluntly what this is it is defined as follows:

In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and to avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs. It is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference, or as a form of selection bias toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study or disconfirmation of an alternative hypothesis.

Confirmation bias is of interest in the teaching of critical thinking, as the skill is misused if rigorous critical scrutiny is applied only to evidence challenging a preconceived idea but not to evidence supporting it.[1]

– Wikipedia

  I couldn’t have said it better myself so I didn’t (obviously). This does feel like a natural adaptation used to help alleviate the fear of the unknown. Recently I discussed the phenomena of Experimental Neurosis and forgot to mention something very important (I think). Namely the more difficult it is to differentiate the worse the condition can, and usually will, be. When presented with a situation in which you have absolutely no dissertation of options, namely the complete unknown, you will find the Neurotic responses to be at the utmost extreme. This is in part why animals fear the dark, the brain cannot decipher wether or not the situation is positive or negative, wether it will return them with a appetitive or aversive stimuli. For any organism hoping to further its genetic code not knowing these bits of information is never helpful.

  Now this is where I feel Confirmation Bias (at least in part) comes into play. When presented with a piece of knowledge that the organism has basically affirmed as completely true (namely there is no case where it is untrue) they will work exceedingly hard to make certain that the information taken in confirms these beliefs. Once you question something that is held as certainty, it starts a snowball effect of what else might be untrue, this creates a massive list of unknowns and for some people (and I’m sure higher level organisms like Dolphins and Apes) can be a crippling incident. To avoid this possible crash and further the life span (and subsequently the chance to reproduce) the organism merely omits or manipulates information that contradicts its beliefs in order to further them and continue on a consistent and unchallenged life (albeit erroneous).

  There are some interesting places where Confirmation Bias is most evident (at least from my experiences). The mean-world hypothesis is in short a theory that all people are naturally violent or otherwise mean by nature. This is supported by evidence in the news that talks about rapes, murders, and robberies. However a person believing this hypothesis would (and does if my behavioral neuroscience book was being honest) show very little stimulation from news reports about a little girl riding a pony for the fair and would be very stimulated by reports of a car jacking. Now we can look at this two ways, in the interest of defeating confirmation bias, one is that possibly they are correct and the reason they are more interested in the car jacking is their natural predisposition to violence, or one could argue that because they believe they should have such a predisposition that their brain automatically omits or limits information intake that contradicts their view of the world.

  Similarly we can look at an Olympic Athlete who believes that God is what makes them win. You will notice in many cases when the Athlete fails they will say something akin to “I have failed” or “My faith wasn’t strong enough.” Whenever they win they’ll say  something like “God helped me win.” or “It was my faith that helped me push through.” I know when I was younger I watched a man who was in multiple Olympic events (swimming if I’m not mistaken) who in one event blamed themselves for not getting the gold and in another thanked God for being there to help them win the gold. I was dumbfounded by God’s tardiness considering the nature of the being.

  When we look at the issue of racism in people one quick instance of confirmation bias comes from the fact that in certain studies they find that when shown a picture of a person and given two buzzers, one for shoot and one for question, when the person see’s someone of a different race they more often hit shoot. It is said by some groups pushing to eliminate racism (a topic for another day I’m sure) that this is obviously examples of how strong racism is in our country. However one could just as well argue, and perhaps even provide much stronger evidence for, the functions of the human brain. Organisms rebuild memories from fragments filling in the blanks as they go, while I don’t remember the process anymore this is why music is so easy to remember, the structure of music makes it extremely difficult (in some cases almost impossible) to put the incorrect fragment in because it screws up the entire rhyme, syllable, and timing scheme (and other musical schemes that I don’t even know about or am misnaming).

  When we look at the case of the ‘shoot the different race’ study we notice that in building a response for someone of a similar race there are far less pieces to put into place. Immediately the organism can skip passed the similarities and move onto response. However in the case of differing races you would not (or I’d think should not) immediately assume anything about it, a shaved gorilla with good posture could very well be standing in front of you, your response to something that can crush you in its incredibly powerful arms would be far different than a fellow human being. Likewise there is a very small window when dealing with a suspect who is holding something, making the wrong judgement or a judgement that is too slow is what gets officers killed (well…the criminal helps quite a bit).

  Now I am not one to say which is the truest of situations, however I will say this. There are studies that show that infants up to a certain point can differentiate between the faces of basically any animal with pretty good accuracy. Where we might in our adult life see the same monkey in two pictures they’ll know that they are two different monkeys. Our brains however begin to specialize and optimize processes so that at a certain point we can much quicker than an infant differentiate between two human faces but lose the ability to do so to the chimps. It is this specialization that might play a strong part in the issue of race. It may be the natural inclination of the brain to not only specialize humans but also certain races (likely the particular organisms race).

  The most enjoyable thing about writing about Confirmation Bias is that at any point you can chalk up a point to it. The thing to remember is that it is a very powerful tool and it requires that we always look at all sides of something. I’d say both sides but that is another great problem with examination, humans adore dichotomies and yet so few truly (<– keyword) exist in the natural world. The next time you are discussing with a friend or stranger a topic you strongly believe in, think about how else you could explain your belief it can do nothing but make you a better person I promise.

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