Our Friend, Confirmation Bias
and How to Use It Strategically
Confirmation bias, instinctively looking for and even creating evidence to confirm what we already believe, gets a lot of bad press, but it can also be a great ally.
Here is a little thought experiment for you to try. When picking up a bowling ball you instinctively fortify your grip and prepare your muscles for a heavy object. If a friend fooled you though, and it’s really a shiny air-filled lookalike, you’ll be surprised when your hands lift the ball so suddenly. You expected it to be heavy. As humans, we constantly make predictions and constantly adapt our models to new experiences. If you place the ball down and pick it up again, your grip and muscles instantly adapt and you’re not fooled twice. When our predictions are wrong, this is surprising. Did you notice that when you picked up the phony bowling ball, your entire attention focused on that surprising event? Events that surprise us hijack our attention and become isolated from our regular stream of consciousness, like a spotlight.
When you were surprised with the phony bowling ball you undoubtedly picked it up again several times to test it. You even asked unsuspecting friends to pass it to you so you could delight in seeing their surprise response and subsequent testing. In the external world of our senses, we can often objectively test and verify what we experienced. And herein lies a critical difference about beliefs we have about ourselves, our internal beliefs. We can’t objectively verify a subjective experience.
We can’t objectively verify a subjective experience
If I’m surprised by the taste of a beverage, I can taste it again to test my senses. The personal and subjective world of what we believe about ourselves, our self-concept, takes a drastically different approach to verification. Herein lies an unappreciated essential feature of how surprise events may produce life-changing effects. Internal beliefs affirm themselves by perceiving or misperceiving evidence that supports the belief.
For example, if you believe you’re a sharp dresser while walking through the local mall you’ll perceive casual glances cast your way as signs of admiration. If you believe you are unattractive, you’ll view these same causal glances by passers-by as rejection.
Here’s what happened to Michelle. Upon starting a new job she participated hesitantly because she believes she doesn’t have much to offer. Instinctively, she perceives eye-contact from co-workers as signs of polite impatience.
One day her boss surprised her by commenting, “Wow Michelle. When you speak at meetings everyone perks up.” Because the comment surprised her, she instantly accepted it and now instinctively affirms her new belief. At meetings she speaks confidently and scans her co-workers while expressing her views, and here’s the self-affirming new part, she perceives eye-contact from her co-workers as an indicator of thoughtful engagement. Her internal belief, derived from the boss’s comment, now confirms itself. Her friend, confirmation bias, urges her to contribute thoughtful remarks in meetings.
As parents, teachers, coaches, and supervisors, we can all enrich others’ lives by accentuating the positive. If done strategically, we might even set up a positive confirmation bias loop. Beliefs we hold about ourselves are self-affirming.
For more about belief formation, go to Meaning Making Moments
Michael Rousell PhD is the author of The Power of Surprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs. He studies life-changing events.