We are prone to believe what we want to believe. In a way, we are like strainers: we keep facts that reinforce what we assume to be true, and let go of everything else. It’s a natural, non-conscious, ever operating bias that help us feel confident. Of course, it’s quite problematic when it biases so much how we gather, interpret or remember information that we end up arriving at conclusions that are plain wrong.
This phenomenon is so extended that it has its own name: the confirmation bias. Several branches stem from it, let’s find out.
Let's see an example. Which is the country that consumes more beer per capita
And the answer is… Czech Republic!! (At least according to this article: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/maps-and-graphics/beer-consumption-per-capita-countries/)
And as surprising as it may be, your stereotypes probably defined your answer. All along our lives, we construct fixed boxes into which we put what fits in it, and disregard what doesn’t. Like Germans that don’t drink beer. So, stereotypes stem in part from our confirmation bias.
Stereotypes can be seen all around in product design: pink wrappers for girls, blue for boys. Aren’t there boys who like pink, and girls who love blue?
It’s a circle where stereotypes features are remembered, those that don’t fit are not, and the stereotype is reinforced.
Yet, stereotypes are useful from a cognitive point of view, as they help organize reality into categories. Just beware that they constrain the way you analyze the world.
Another related bias is Hindsight, or the ‘I knew it all along bias’. It is the tendency to think a certain outcome was meant to happen after it occured. Like when you knew Brexit was going to happen even if the polls were not clear at all. Interpreting past events in a narrative that is consistent with the present situation confirms our points of view. Rings a bell?
Cognitive dissonance as the mechanism behind it all.
There you are, looking at that piece of chocolate cake, struggling with your desire to devour it and your plan to decrease the consumption of sugar.
‘Should I eat it or not?’
So you tell yourself that you love chocolate cake, you are actually kind of hungry, and you had such a hard day. All of the sudden your decision to cut-down sugary foods is outweighed by all those arguments. You eat and enjoy every crumble.
Or, you decide to stick with the plan and walk away. This way you avoid guilt, take care of your health and feel good about yourself.
Either way, you decreased that uncomfortable sensation of having two opposite ideas on your mind. And, you have arguments to be right in both scenarios. Our mind convincing ourselves.
Thing is, having two opposing ideas about the same thing creates an unpleasant sensation that we can’t handle very well. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. So what do we do? We walk away from it. It turns out we have several clever strategies for doing that.
Let’s call that idea that is making us uneasy the ‘buggin’ idea’. How does it create discomfort? By crashing with previous beliefs that we hold true. The more beliefs it collides with, or the more important ideas it is incongruent with, the worse it is.
So, what do we do with it?
- We remove the buggin’ idea. For instance we tell ourselves ‘This was just a one-day leave on my no-sugary treats plan’
- We reduce its importance ‘it’s not such a big deal, just one piece of cake won’t make such a big impact if I stick to the plan the rest of the week’
- We add counterarguments: ‘I’m hungry, I’ll get a headache if I don’t eat, I deserve it, it’s vegan’. What’s one argument against four?
- We increase the importance of the counterarguments. I can’t get a headache right now, it will kill the rest of my afternoon!
Whatever way we go, the result is the same: that discomfort has gone, after all, you had good reasons to behave like you did.
And all in all, what remains is: you were right!
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of general psychology, 2(2), 175-220.
Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford university press.