Confirmation Bias is the leading cause of conflict, discord, and poor judgement, but it doesn’t deserve all the credit because confirmation bias isn’t a solo act. It works in concert with cognitive dissonance and the Heuristic1 Gang, a notorious band of biases. These cognitive outlaws rob us of our good senses and peddle a counterfeit currency, false logic.
The most important subliminal influences in life are the ones operating in the core of your mind. When you think about it, life is a continuous flow of perceptional interpretations. Anything that distorts our interpretation distorts the fabric of our lives.
Subliminal Cognition refers to the dynamic line between perceptual input, your sense signals, and the interpretation of that input in the organ of your mind, your brain. It is this line of distinction that defines truth and meaning in our lives and the world.
Confirmation Bias in the Buff
What would you think about someone who makes you seem like you’re always right on target? He makes you feel like your a cool-cat, the smartest person around! The problem is that this guy isn’t only the ultimate yes man he’s got some nasty habits. His habits aren’t closeted either, they infect the environment and have a tendency to go viral. He’s a bit of a trickster who hides the things you need the most. He’s the one who keeps you from finding the information you need to clearly assess the most important decisions in your life? While he’s buttering you up with sweet sounding platitudes, his lies, manipulation, and deceit are causing havoc, sowing dissent and delivering a major dose of hurt into the places that hurt the most.
The guy can’t help himself. He just loves starting fights and then pretends like he didn’t do anything out of line. It was all someone else’s fault! He causes arguments between you and your lovers and stirs up trouble with just about everyone, your partners, friends, family and important clients! He even throws in an extra portion of stubborn intransigence just to make sure your disagreements escalate to the extremes. You see, provoking assault and violence is one of his favorite past-times.
Even though this isn’t someone you’d want to invite over to your next dinner party, he’s with you all the time. You see, he’s built a cozy hideout in your mind.Can you imagine what would happen if Mr. Confirmation Bias was elected as president of the Untied States or became a supreme court justice, or maybe he’ll end up walking the beat in Ferguson Illinois?
Well, you know what? He has! Presidents, legislators, Judges, and Police, are just like the rest of us. We are all prone to the biased thinking that leads to bad decisions and injustice.
What may be even more troubling is Mr. Confirmation Bias is the best friend of those vying for positions of power. With him at their side inflaming the partisan divide, they play the role and soar in the electoral poll.
Mr. Confirmation Bias has got public appeal. We can’t seem to get enough of him. From Jerry Springer to Fox News and MSNBC, he provides folks with just what they want, entertaining bouts of mayhem that make them feel superior, that make them feel right.
You see, “Punditry is an industry built on confirmation bias. Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and Arianna Huffington, Rachel Maddow, and Ann Coulter—these people provide fuel for beliefs, they pre-filter the world to match existing worldviews. If their filter is like your filter, you love them. If it isn’t, you hate them. You watch them not for information, but for confirmation.”2
The real scary thing is that it’s not just the media. As you’ll see in my upcoming video post, The Filter Bubble Rebooted, multinational corporations have turned Confirmation Bias into an online business model.
Confirmation Bias Blindness
Confirmation Bias is easy to see in others but damn hard to notice in yourself. We’ve all encountered people who should know better but still refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming and solid proof, refuse to admit their mistakes or stubbornly cling to plain out dumb decisions.
In part, this tendency stems from the way that we make decisions.Do you believe that you’re a rational person? When you make decisions are they based on careful observation and diligent reasoning? Even though we’d like to think that we are reasonable, studies show that our decisions are not using the higher capabilities of our frontal lobe, the region of the brain that handles deliberation and reasoning.
Decisions aren’t based on logic or an analysis of the facts. They’re based on instinct and emotion, and arise from your subconscious, the primordial part of your brain.
So the fact is, we tend to ignore the facts.
You make choices in the moment and then shore up or justify your choices with reason. It might only be by a matter of micro-seconds, but reasoning only comes into play after you’ve made up your mind. Once you’ve reached a conclusion, then you search out supportive views and information.
No one wants to be wrong or make bad decisions. We certainly don’t do it on purpose. So you seek out material that supports your position and ignore data that disagrees with you, that might make you look like an idiot.
The magnitude of Confirmation Bias isn’t steady. It ranges from the mild influence of selective attention to the mind bending extreme of a temporary mental freeze-up, delusion and denial.
According to the Dissonance Theory —
“If the new information is consonant with our beliefs, we think it is well founded and useful: “Just what I always said!” But if the new information is dissonant, then we consider it biased or foolish: “What a dumb argument!”
So powerful is the need for consonance that people forced to look at disconfirming evidence, will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief. This mental contortion is called the “confirmation bias.”3
In its most virulent form of confirmation bias rears its ugly head when you’re experiencing a high degree of cognitive dissonance. When two important beliefs or values clash.
“Essentially, the theory defined dissonance as the mental turmoil that is produced when a person holds two ideas that are incompatible: for example, the cognition “I know smoking can kill me” and the cognition “I’m smoking two packs a day.”
Because dissonance is uncomfortable, people will try to reduce it by changing one or both cognitions to make them more consonant with each other. In this case, smokers could either give up cigarettes or justify smoking on some other grounds (“smoking reduces my anxiety”; “it keeps me from overeating”).
The more important the issue and the greater the degree of a person’s commitment to it, the greater the dissonance – and the greater the need to reduce it.”4
Blind Sided by Confirmation Bias
Back in the mid-eighties, I was working like a maniac, putting in sixteen hour days on the Temple of Paradise5, my first book!
I noticed the oddest thing when I was writing. No matter what I wanted to say, something always popped up to confirm my views. Some may call it serendipity and sometimes it probably was, but it is also a clear indication that confirmation bias may be at play.
I was under the impression that confirming my suppositions, justifying my conclusions, fortifying my views was the name of the game. Don’t get me wrong, you definitely want to present a convincing argument, but not one that ignores the kinks, that doesn’t recognize and or address contrary views.
Finally, after 5 years of hard labor I finished the book. Can you imagine how good it felt? I was on top of the world. There it was the fruit of my slavish persistence. The Temple of Paradise turned out beautiful. It was an epitome of polished prose and you know what? It was wrong! Right after putting the finishing touches on the book, I was given a manuscript that irrefutably negated one of the main themes underlying my book. Oh no!
It was so hard to accept. I was utterly mortified and after weeks of coming to terms with the issue I finally tore the book apart and started over. I had clearly been under the influence of my own personal misconceptions. Misconceptions that were deeply rooted in my social-religious upbringing.
What I failed to realize is that proving that you are right is not the point. A good lawyer is so persuasive that he can make a guilty man look innocent, or inversely a good prosecutor can make an innocent man look guilty. The point is to honor justice, carefully weigh the evidence and find the truth that’s truer than true. I’m talking about an objective truth that can withstand the challenge and scrutiny of time and criticism.
On the other hand, I had been naive about questioning the credibility of my sources. It isn’t enough to just go by academic acclaim and popular citations. Checking your sources requires going the extra mile, looking behind the facade and taking the time to thoroughly research not only your subject but the background of your sources. You want to dig up all dirt that you can!
So, I guess you could say it took all those years of writing, research and experimentation just to uncover my own biases, the fault lines running through my conceptions, conclusions, and beliefs. The best thing that you can do when you realize that you’ve made a mistake is admit it, take responsibility for it and get on with your life.
Now I am my own worst critic and do the utmost to find the chinks in my thesis. I don’t want to look like an idiot when people read my books. I want to find out if and where I may be wrong and correct it as quickly as possible! Even though, confirmation bias cost me five years, I still got off easy. The price that others have paid for confirmation bias and the self-justification that stems from cognizant dissonance has been far dearer and at times even fatal.
How to Overcome Confirmation Bias
Confirmation Bias doesn’t just affect us individually, it effects run through our social institutions and entire branches of society. In this context, it leads to prejudice, bad science, corporate negligence, a dysfunctional legal system and extreme injustice.
These grave consequences can be diminished by implementing clear oversights, safeguards and adjusting methods and policies to offset the influence of confirmation bias and biased memory. However, the general trend seems to be in the opposite direction.
We need intelligent debate and discourse in the public arena!
Prosecuting whistleblowers, playing the pass the buck game and using bias to hook in an audience of supporters is short sighted and sure to cause even more enmity and division.
This environment is reaching a point of crisis and change is happening, albeit slowly and often behind the scenes. While we can’t expect to change our collective framework overnight, we can revolutionize our own lives.
Just being aware of confirmation bias is huge, and will help you to negate some of its nefarious effects.
Subliminal Cognition is one of those terms that sounds intimidating, but it really isn’t. In a very literal sense subliminal cognition means: at the threshold of understanding, learning and thought. By excising an extra degree of awareness at this threshold, you can crush confirmation bias before it has a chance to take hold.
Once you are aware that your knee-jerk reaction may be riddled with self-justification take a moment to check it’s validity. Do you intend to be helpful and constructive, to learn and grow, or would you rather just stir up a bunch bad feelings? Does your response further the conversation or is it likely to obscures the issue?
There is a big difference between a self-serving excuse and a reasonable explanation.
When you’re angry, do you take ten deep breaths before you say something that you’re likely to regret? Do you do what I do, and never reply to an emotionally charged email until you’ve slept on it?
This works for confirmation bias as well. If you are extremely passionate about a subject, take a step back. Wait a moment and gather your wits. Make sure you understand where the other person is coming from.
The Native Americans use a Pow Wow stick in important meetings. It is a brilliant way to make sure that everyone has a chance to speak and be heard. Whoever is holding the stick has the floor and speaks without interruption until passing the stick on.
When the stick is then passed to the next person, the first thing that they do is repeat what the previous person said in their own words. This makes sure that everyone is on the same page and cuts down on misunderstandings.
References and Resources
1) Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts. They cut down the amount of resources used by the brain to solve problems and reach conclusions. While they do speed up inductive reasoning Heuristics are prone to error.
2) David McRaney, You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself Gotham; Reprint edition (November 6, 2012), 77
3) Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (Mariner Books; Reprint edition (March 2008), 18
4) Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: Martino Fine Books (November 12, 2009), 10
5) Those first years of writing The Temple of Paradise is an amazing story, considering that the book was initially handwritten, scribed thrice and besides some awesome mentors I am largely uneducated in the conventional sense. Yet, it is a story to share at another time and place.
The Temple of Paradise is a three volume set that’s devoted to presenting the single, unified model that underlies and unites all the diverse traditions of man. It not only encompasses the wisdom of ancient spiritual traditions but also incorporates the latest scientific research in fields such as neuroscience, quantum physics, and the new biology.
After thirty years in the making, I have to admit that the Temple of Paradise still hasn’t reached the level of refinement that it had after those first five years. Yet, it is well founded and has been looked over by experts and checked for accuracy by Sanskrit Scholars from the University of California.
So, it may not be as polished or even complete, it is as correct as I could possibly make it. You are welcome to read the latest draft of the latest draft of the first volume. the Temple of Paradise for free on Issue. Just click here: The Flower of Bliss