Summer Series #3: Torturing facts, in our service

“When men wish to construct or support a theory, how they torture facts into their service!” (Mackay, 1852/1932, p. 552).

Have you ever noticed how people seem to ignore or reject evidence that contradicts their views? For example, a person who believes that vaccines cause autism might think about their friend whose child was diagnosed as autistic shortly after receiving a vaccine. A person may use this as evidence that vaccines do, in fact, cause autism. This person may Google “vaccines cause autism” and cite the search results as more evidence that she was right. This person, however, may fail to consider all the instances in which young children have received vaccines and have not been diagnosed with autism. This raises the question: How are your beliefs and opinions formed? Most of us believe that they are the result of an objective analysis of reality. Instead, we are all susceptible to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias, proposed by psychologist Peter Wason in the 1960s, is the tendency to seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to our existing beliefs, expectations, or hypotheses. People place extra value on evidence that is consistent with their beliefs, while undervaluing evidence that contradicts their beliefs. So the person who believes that vaccines cause autism is likely to overvalue evidence that confirms his/her beliefs, while undervaluing evidence that does not confirm his/her beliefs. People tend to test their hypotheses in a one-sided way: they search for evidence consistent with their hypotheses, rather than searching all relevant evidence impartially. Then they stop gathering information when the evidence they’ve gathered confirms the views they already hold.

People who ask advice may frame their options in a way that displays confirmation bias. For example, one advice-seeker in The Soothstream yesterday was worried about having to conform to the pressure of staying at work after hours to establish her work reputation; she had young children at home. Here’s what she was "mulling over":

a) Seek out an executive with kids despite not reporting to her. Make an ally and find confidence in leaving at the same time as her.

b) Talk to my boss who of course won’t understand but try to make a case that I’m awesome.

c) Suck it up and use the time to make a real impact in the work I can get done.

Option B reflects this woman’s belief that her boss “of course” won’t understand. This opinion may be due to confirmation bias. This woman may already believe that bosses typically don’t understand their subordinates. She may then look for instances that confirm her belief. For example, if she asks to take time off work and her boss declines her request, she may attribute it to her boss not understanding, when her boss may actually be under pressure from someone higher up in the company to make sure that employee attendance remains high.

Confirmation bias may also affect an advice-seeker’s perceptions about what constitutes good advice. For example, the woman above already assumes that her boss won’t understand, so she may not want solicitors of advice to select the option of talking to her boss. Advice-seekers may want advice that is in accordance with what they, themselves, believe will work.

Armed with the terminology, you’ll see confirmation bias operating all around you: we often see what we want to see or what we expect to see, rather than what is really there.

  • We sometimes follow news outlets that reinforce our political beliefs, at the expense of objectively informing ourselves about the facts of a news story.
  • We judge ambiguous behaviors based on stereotypes and faulty expectations, at the cost of objective criteria. Someone with low self-esteem is sensitive to social rejection and monitors the behavior of others to pick up on signs of others disliking her. 

What can you do about it? Try to be aware of instances in which you are solely seeking out evidence in favor of your existing beliefs. Challenge yourself to acknowledge perspectives that differ from your own and try to be objective. Doing so may ultimately lead you to see the world through a more objective (and less foggy) lens!

Here's a link to a fun and interactive way to test your confirmation bias. Comment below with your thoughts after testing your confirmation bias.


This post was written by Sooth intern, Michelle Hasan.

Michelle is a fifth-year graduate student in the Experimental Psychology program at Saint Louis University. Her research focuses on interpersonal relationships, and more specifically: social isolation, loneliness, forgiveness, relationships transgressions, and relationship transitions. Michelle is interested in Sooth because giving advice and helping others become aware of psychological phenomena relevant to their real-world experiences can not only provide insight into the self and the situation, but can let people know that their problems are not solely their own; rather, a number of people are in similar situations, experience similar emotions, and perform similar behaviors.