Confirmation Bias


Adrienne: The human mind is a powerful tool that can imagine everything from black holes to ballet. But as good as our brains are, they can be tricked. Today our Wellness Columnist Scott McPherson is here to talk about how we can use mindfulness to help avoid one of the most common mistakes our brains make. Hi Scott.

Scott: Hi Adrienne.

Adrienne: So, are we talking about the mistakes we make when we get the answer wrong on a test, or with multiplying numbers or things like that?

Scott: No. Those are important mistakes for us to think about too. But those mistakes are more about errors in memory or calculation. But these other ones are processing mistakes or limits of attention. So think about things like magicians making things disappear, or the way we can fall for an optical illusion. Or, in this case of Confirmation Bias, we can think about how we can be blinded by a belief.

Adrienne: Can you give us an example of this?

Scott: We’ve all had the experience where we’re looking for something. Maybe it’s our keys or glasses, or an article of clothing. And we can all remember times where we literally looked right at the thing but didn’t see it. And then on our third time through a room, we spot the thing we’re looking for, in the first place we looked. Most of us have had the experience of looking for keys or sunglasses that we end up finding in our hands or on our head.

Adrienne: Right– I think this has happened to everyone at some point. What’s going on there?

Scott: We get tricked by our previous beliefs. So if we look the first time, where we expect to see them, we can still fail to see the keys because our minds were distracted by any thoughts that involve loss, or absence or anything related. And those types of thoughts can overlap and ‘cancel out’ our ability to pattern-match the keys that are actually within our view. So our brain tells us they aren’t there and we continue looking.

Adrienne: But won’t we just come back the second time and see them?

Scott: Generally no. Confirmation bias means we’ll look in the same place over and over before we notice the thing is right where we looked, or that it is wrong or missing, like with typos. The problem is the first visit establishes a belief that the keys aren’t there. So every time we go back to their actual location, we ‘see’ our beliefs rather than the keys. They are made invisible by our belief they are not there. We can really get irritated by the searching, but that just amplifies our thoughts. We look faster, in more places, but because we believe they are lost we can’t find them.

Adrienne: Obviously, we do eventually find most things. What changes that allows us to finally see them?

Scott: We surrender. We get to the point where we start to believe we really don’t know where they are. And the moment we do that, we open back up, and we can see them right in front of us.

Adrienne: Does that effect happen with more important things than hats, or keys, or typos?

Scott: For sure. The most important thing it does is prevent us from truly seeing other people. Confirmation bias can mean our beliefs about people trump what they are actually saying. This is at the heart of why a lot of social and political discussions have become polarized. People aren’t actually listening to each other, they keep hearing their beliefs instead of being present to take in the totality of the other person.

The pipeline to the West Coast is a good example. A lot of folks in Vancouver are understandably raised to love and honour their stunning environment. So when they transfer that perspective to the pipeline, they just see corporations, big money, heavy industry and environmental damage. So they conclude pipeline workers are big business, money-hungry, anti-environmentalists. Yet, to someone working on the pipeline, they have more reason to think in a more nuanced way about what pipelines really do. So the pipeline worker has thought about the fact that we all eat food that needed oil to be grown, and shipped. They also recognize that people live in heated homes, while wearing synthetic fibres, and that all of our lives are surrounded by plastic. So they can come to see the environmentalist as a hypocrite that is happy to use oil’s products all while trying to destroy the pipeline worker’s livelihood.

It’s important to remember that both of these people can have very valid points that can ‘seem’ incompatible. Yet, if we could get them to surrender who they think the other person is, then they could listen to each other more openly and actually discover they agree on almost everything. For instance, a lot of pipeline workers are outdoorsy people who love nature, and camping. And maybe the person in Vancouver also loves camping so much that they design camping clothing, or tents made from nylon or some other oil-based fibres. So in terms of their day to day lives, they can actually value most of the same things. And issue by issue they might agree on 95% of things. But because they have these strong beliefs about who each other is, instead hearing the voice of a potential camping buddy, they can end up screaming obscenities at who they think the other person is. That means the other person can’t fix our problem. Only we can change our own minds by becoming more mindful of the possibility that our perceptions of people –like with the keys- can be wrong.

Adrienne: So the mindfulness we use to combat the Confirmation Bias is really a kind of humility?

Scott: Yeah, that’s actually a really good way to think about it. It’s like the world is a diamond. But this diamond has 8 billion facets, and we can each only see our facet, or the ones near ours. So our friends are really just people looking at roughly the same part of the diamond. And our so-called ‘enemies’ are just other good people on the other side of the diamond. If one person is looking at a facet near the bottom of the diamond, near its point; and the other person is up near the table of the diamond, that looks very flat, they can argue like the pipeline worker and the environmentalist about what’s real and true. But the only way either of them can comprehend the whole truth is to respect those other views as legitimate, and then ask them what they see from their perspective.

But before we can do that we have to recognize that we, like all human beings, are not immune to Confirmation bias. We all prove that to ourselves by the fact that most people reject compliments. That’s because our view of ourselves is generally much worse than our friends views of us. So when someone offers us a sincere and accurate compliment, we can argue with them that we don’t deserve it just because we don’t believe it. The majority of my work with people is about removing their negative biases about themselves so that they can become more mindful of their own qualities. That’s why they end up liking themselves and their lives a lot more. What really happens is that they change their thinking enough that they can then see themselves, or some other person or situation, in a fresh way, with more possibilities. This is why mindfulness of our own Confirmation bias is important.

Whether it’s a thing like keys, or another person, or even if it’s about ourselves, our brains can trick us into believing things that aren’t true. So no one really hates themselves or other people. They just think they do. But we’ll keep on hating until we learn to change our thinking. So what’s exciting is that, in a lot of cases, if we just slow our thinking down we’ll notice more. And all kinds of possibilities emerge in the gaps. Including ones that make us, and other people, look a lot better than we thought.

Adrienne: This seems like a lesson all of us can take going forward, in all of our discussions. Thanks Scott.

Scott: My pleasure.

Adrienne: Scott McPherson is our Wellness Columnist. He teaches mindfulness in Edmonton. Find him at, and on Twitter and Facebook.

Hi everyone.

Please note that I regularly join Radio Active‘s host Adrienne Pan, on CBC Radio One here in Edmonton. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), or elsewhere through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at Today we’ll be on at 5:20pm.

Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the top of this post within a few days of airing.

Today’s topic: 

The human mind is a powerful tool, but it is not without its challenges. How we use our minds can often innocently lead us to misapprehend our own reality. By becoming more mindful of these mental mistakes, we can avoid being victimized by our own innocence.

If you get to hear it and haven’t before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy their show. They have a great team.

Take care everyone. Here’s to a grateful day for all of us.

peace. s