Confirmation bias reaches epidemic! — how to save yourself

The internet has drastically changed our relationship with information for better, but in some ways for worse

Julia Clavien
Mar 12, 2017 · 5 min read


Confirmation bias has reached epidemic levels in today’s information rich digital world.

But it’s not too late, there are ways to help yourself…

Hold up…

What even is confirmation bias?

It’s our “tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities”. (Plous)

In other words, we aren’t as rational as we might like to believe.

In fact, we often just see information that supports our existing beliefs and ignore anything that doesn’t.

So what?

If you have any interest in rational, objective thinking, you will find confirmation bias concerning — particularly because the ability to find information that supports your viewpoint has drastically increased in the modern world.

Now don’t get me wrong…

I love the internet!

I’ve been accused (probably correctly) of neomania (via Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

Yes! We live in an amazing time, with unprecedented access to information. (Particularly crowd curated resources like Wikipedia et al. ❤) It’s amazing that we live in a time where we can carry around the entire corpus of human wisdom around in a pocket size device.

However, I am worried about one particular side effect of this avalanche of information…

The confirmation bias epidemic

The internet has drastically changed our relationship with information (I’d argue mostly) for better, but in some ways for worse.

The epidemic is a direct result of how easily the internet lets us confirm our own views. Three attributes stand out.

1. Speed

There’s no walking to those old fashioned things called libraries to consults curated tomes — no! Instead you just go to Google and abracadabra find supporting information for your viewpoint! I can immediately reinforce whatever view I have on pretty much anything.

For example, I just searched vaccinations cause autism and found 479k results in just under a second!

2. Filter bubbles

You’re trapped in your very own filter bubble…

“An echo chamber of self affirming views”

Google, Facebook, Twitter and the like all have algorithms that tailor what you see in a search or a feed to you.

Not only does Google help you find confirming information very easily, but Google actively filters you towards your point of view.

3. Zero Quality Assurance

It’s wonderful how content creation is becoming more accessible to more people than ever before, but with that comes the ability to create any kind of quality of information that ever before. (Yes, quality is going to be subjective.)

One current example is the rise of what we are calling fake new. As Tim Berners-Lee wrote yesterday

“sites show us content they think we’ll click on — meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire.”

What are the treatment options?

It’s pretty grim, but here’s one remedy to try to help fight the epidemic.

Seek Disconfirming Evidence

It sounds simple, but try to prove yourself wrong instead of right.

Try searching for contradictory information instead of confirming information.

(Similar to how scientists try to disprove a null hypothesis.)

Try the Confirmation Bias Search Inverter

The search inverter extension was built to make a fun comment about confirmation bias. Particularly how challenging it is to shift our approach to be focused on proving ourselves wrong.

How it works

After adding the extension, just type “CB” and a space, then your search terms into the omnibox in Chrome.

1. Enter the search terms

For example maybe you just heard from a friend that “vaccinations cause autism” so you want to find out more, so you type “CB vaccinations cause autism” and hit enter -

2. You’ll be directed to disconfirming information…

The confirmation bias search inverter will invert your search if appropriate (with a tiny bit of nlp magic), and show you disconfirming information.

The point here is not to suggest that one search is right and one search is wrong, but simply to illustrate how easy it is to satisfy our own bias. (Note the 479k results for “vaccinations cause autism”, and 631k results for “vaccinations don’t cause autism”).

Try it

Try it out, get the extension free here!

I’d love to know your thoughts, tweet me at @juliaclavien.

Julia Clavien

Written by

Curious to a fault. Technology | Psychology | Philosophy. All opinion subject to change. ☺

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