When we are learning or trying to improve ourselves it is important we approach new topics or ideas with an open mind. When stepping into a subject for the first time the more you can absorb, the more you will be able to get a grip of what you are learning and see the new possibilities it may be offering. I know I often struggle with this. Making assumptions about a topic before I look at it may be one of my weaknesses when I am learning. I used to think I was pretty good at examining new ideas with fresh eyes until I came across the concept of Confirmation Bias. Something which has increased my self-awareness enough to be more critical about my preconceptions when I am trying to learn something new.

So, what is confirmation bias?

Put simply it is the tendency to see, interpret and recall information that confirms beliefs or hypotheses that you already hold. Thereby giving less attention to information that may challenge your currently held beliefs and ideas. This bias is most prevalent when information is ambiguous. In this situation, most people will interpret the new data in a way that favours the beliefs they already hold. Therefore, it could be said that subjects such as history, politics or philosophy are more susceptible to this type of thinking. Interestingly, ideas that challenge our way of doing things are hugely influenced by bias in this way because of our emotional investment in them. It has been shown that emotionally charged ideas are much more susceptible to confirmation bias than non-emotional issues. Having said all this, these are not the only topics that can suffer from this, science can be biased too. It has been demonstrated that scientists tend to rate studies that confirm their prior held beliefs more favourably than others.  Even the peer review system that gives science its backbone of objectivity is susceptible to confirmation bias with reviewers often favouring papers that reaffirm prior held beliefs.

We See it Everyday

We can even see confirmation bias running throughout our daily lives. If we look at our Facebook wall, Twitter feed or any other social media account we often friend, follow or like ideas and things that are already strongly held beliefs or ideas. We may also use websites that are very similar to our way of looking at the world. This habit, that we all have in our online lives, is the perfect example of confirmation bias at work. We read, watch and listen to things that more often than not simply reaffirm what we already know. This offers us less and less opportunity to learn or see things from another perspective. It is this “narrowing of the field” that can lead to a real stunt in your growth. Without exposure to new ideas, it is difficult to see things from a new perspective or learn a new way of doing things.

See How it Works Here

Here is a short video that helps you see confirmation bias in action. It shows how we look for things and ideas that confirm what we believe should be the truth when in reality we know it isn’t.

One of the most powerful tools in learning is knowing yourself. Building a level of self-awareness helps you be critical of the biases that you may bring to the learning experience. Understanding confirmation bias helps you take a step back when looking at something new and question yourself. “Am I just thinking this because I already believe it? What other viewpoints could I use to examine this information?” Confirmation bias is something everybody does. Without being aware of it, learning new things that challenge your ideas is very difficult. By simply acknowledging this is something you do gives you that extra chance to observe new ideas from a fresh perspective and with a new understanding.

My Biased University Expectations

Before I went to University I found that I had a certain expectation of what a degree would bring me. I thought once I have it, I will get a job and most importantly money. This outlook meant that I approached everything with the outcome in mind. I would do everything necessary to get a degree and nothing more. That meant ignoring a lot of what I learnt. I suspect I may not be alone in having a bias focused on the outcome of my university. The one problem with this is that you miss most of the learning. The process itself is more valuable than the outcome. I went in with the idea that the degree was the most important thing and therefore missed out on everything else that went with it. The thing about the outcome is it is dependent on the process, focus on that and the outcome takes care of itself. This is true for any outcome be that a degree, money or any other goal. My bias ensured that the real value of university was lost on me.

One of the great things about the internet is the opening up of information to the masses. All ideas, available everywhere, all of the time. You can look into new perspectives on how to develop yourself from across the world. However, with things like Google’s personalised search that opportunity is being hidden behind your own beliefs and ideas that the search engine learns about you. By being aware of your confirmation bias you can look things up elsewhere that could offer you a new way of looking at things. This opens you up to new ideas, helping you learn faster and try out things you may never have previously considered possible.