Confirmation Bias: How to Be More Open to New Ideas

Have you ever met someone who doesn’t believe in climate change? Because they’re pretty darn stubborn.

If you were to show them how a forest fire in Australia is caused by global warming they’d find ways to argue back. They’ll say things like “it was just a hot year” or “it must have been another reason, like a human accident.” It’s clear that this person is going to think of every possible excuse as to why climate change is not a problem.

What you are observing here is called confirmation bias. It is the tendency to search for and favor information that confirms prior beliefs. In this case, our anti-climate change person believes that climate change is not a problem. So whenever you try to present evidence to the contrary, their brains quickly look for ways to counter, even to the point of ignoring logic and reason.

Examples of confirmation bias

Confirmation bias can be observed everywhere where a person has pre-existing beliefs. Our minds are always looking for ways to re-confirm those beliefs. The brain likes conformity.

Thinking about mom

James Goodwin gives a great example of confirmation bias in his book Research in Psychology. He studied extrasensory perception — basically when people say that “they can just feel it.”

“Persons believing in extrasensory perception (ESP) will keep close track of instances when they were ‘thinking about Mom, and then the phone rang and it was her!’ Yet they ignore the far more numerous times when (a) they were thinking about Mom and she didn’t call and (b) they weren’t thinking about Mom and she did call.”

There’s no real evidence or solid data that whenever you think about mom, she calls. But our brains might try to correlate thoughts about mom with her calling — i.e confirmation bias. We have a need to always have a consistent explanation for things. Saying that “I could feel it” or “I thought about it” is a way of creating that explanation.

Making a career change

If you’ve ever thought of making a career change or starting your own business, you’ve likely searched online for examples of people who have done the same. Although our own lives are always unique, we tend to look for other examples first “just to get an idea” or “just to confirm.”

If you fear that your career change might end up being a failure, then any stories that you hear about other people failing will stick to you like glue. Those stories will seem more believable. You’ll even notice them more often when talking to people or browsing the internet.

When you do see examples of successful people, you’ll unnoticeably overlook them. Your brain will pass them off as flukes and forget them much faster than the examples of failure.

This is all confirmation bias in action. Your brain is confirming your pre-existing beliefs. If you think you’re going to fail, then you’ll notice and remember more examples of such failures. The same thing goes for success — if you’re confident and believe you will succeed, you’ll notice and remember more of that too.

How to overcome confirmation bias

Confirmation bias can make you get stuck in a rut. If you let it take too much control, then you risk becoming closed off, believing things that might be completely wrong. Overcoming confirmation bias will open your mind to new experiences and ideas, which is the only way for personal growth to take place.

To overcome confirmation bias, you must constantly challenge your current beliefs. You can do this in two ways.

Prove yourself wrong

Whenever you’re deciding on whether something is true or false, or good or bad, always try to prove yourself wrong.

Let’s say that you don’t believe in climate change (just an example!). Write down that belief. Then, list as many counterexamples and counter-evidence that you can find that challenge that belief. Look for anything that could prove you wrong.

In doing this process, don’t write anything down that would prove your initial belief right. Although that seems fair, it will also trigger your confirmation bias. What we’re doing here is totally focusing on proving yourself wrong.

Eventually, once you pile up enough strong evidence, your confirmation bias will be overcome. You’ve built up such a mountain of counter-evidence that it’s impossible to ignore. You’re challenging your assumptions head-on and are building of plenty of evidence in case you need to justify changing them.

And of course, you may find that even with all the evidence your initial belief was correct. That’s perfectly fine. The goal is to get into the habit of aggressively challenging your assumptions and beliefs so that you can take advantage of new ideas and experiences.

Gather diverse information

Of course, it’s not always easy to challenge your own ideas by yourself. That’s why it’s helpful to gather diverse information.

Whether you’re looking to make a career change, or simply challenge some basic assumptions you have, talk to as many people as possible about the ideas. The key is that you talk to many different people so that you’re able to gather data from different perspectives.

Talk to people who have tried, and who haven’t. To people who have failed, and those who have succeeded. Talk to people who believe what you believe, and those who do not. By doing so, you’re able to see your assumptions from many different angles to get a more open and high-level view of things.

You can also use this strategy to constantly expose yourself to new experiences and ideas. Go to a different networking event every now and then. Talk to new people and go to new places.

In general, focus on exposing yourself to as many new and different things as possible. Doing so will keep you in the habit of always challenging your assumptions, always expanding. That’s how you remain creative and maximize your growth.

This article is part of a mini-series on cognitive biases. Stay tuned for more! Check out the others so far here:

Substitution Bias: How to Make Sure You Don’t Miss the Details
Availability Bias: Don’t Let Your Surroundings Affect Your Decisions
Framing Bias: How to Make Better Decisions
Anchoring Bias: How to Avoid Getting Ripped off on Salary
Loss Aversion: How to Take Calculated Risks
Hindsight Bias: How to Be Smart About Reviewing Your Past Decisions

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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