Understanding Confirmation Bias Psychology

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Superforecasting" by Philip E. Tetlock. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a confirmation bias in psychology? What role does it play in human behavior and decision-making?

In cognitive psychology, confirmation bias refers to the tendency to seek and interpret information based on our prior beliefs about it. Confirmation bias saves cognitive resources involved in decision-making, but it can lead to faulty conclusions which can have drastic effects in critical situations.

Read about confirmation bias psychology and some examples of how it manifests in decision-making and behavior.

The Psychology of the Confirmation Bias

Sometimes, the things we’re trying to explain are more complex than “event A caused event B.” In these cases, the urge to explain the situation propels us to gather more evidence. The problem here is our tendency to latch onto the first possible explanation we think of, then only seek out evidence that supports that belief (and ignore evidence that contradicts it). This is confirmation bias, and it’s a dangerous trap for decision-making. Cherry-picking evidence can quickly lead to drawing conclusions that are completely off base. 

These faulty conclusions can be dangerous. The 2011 terrorist attacks in Oslo, Norway provide a sobering example. The first attack was a massive car bomb outside the Norwegian prime minister’s office. The perpetrator wasn’t immediately identified and speculation ran wild, with many concluding that the attack must be the work of Muslim extremists. This conclusion stemmed from a combination of underlying Islamaphobia and a powerful availability heuristic (since there had been several bombings by Islamic extremist groups in the preceding decade). 

Once this story was invented, finding evidence to support it was easy, and the story evolved: The bombing was the work of radical Muslims reacting to the presence of Norwegian troops in Afghanistan. Less than two hours later, a mass shooting at a nearby government-run summer camp solidified the story and caused understandable panic across Europe. 

But the story was wrong. Both attacks were carried out by a single person, a Norwegian extremist who claimed the attacks were meant to punish the government for allowing Muslim immigration into Norway. In other words, the popular explanation had been fundamentally backward: The Oslo attacks were an example of Islamaphobic terrorism, not Muslim extremism. Unfortunately, the popular attachment to this initial explanation was so strong that the Muslim community in Oslo suffered a wave of harassment and violence in the aftermath of the attacks. 

The lesson of the Oslo attacks is profound: Just because an explanation makes sense doesn’t mean it’s true. In scientific terms, a plausible hypothesis is not the same as proof. 

Understanding Confirmation Bias Psychology

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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