In the last post in this series I posed the following question: four cards with a drink on one side an age on the other, indicating the patrons at a bar. In USA the drinking age is 21. Which cards must you flip over to see whether or not the bartender is breaking the law?: 16, ginger ale, beer, 28
The answer is 16 and beer.
Now for an experiment a sheet of paper has the number sequence 2, 4, 6, and a rule written on the opposite side. Let’s say I asked for numbers, to which I’d either reply “Fits the rule” or “Doesn’t for the rule”, and then, based on my answers, let you guess the rule. (If no one guesses it, I’ll give it in the next post in this series.)
This puzzle illustrates something called the confirmation bias, which is the tendency to pay attention to evidence confirming our notions while ignoring anything that contradicts them. Smoking is an example: there is a lot of evidence on the health risks of smoking. However, for smokers (particularly those who choose to pick up smoking), there are a number of ways of ignoring the data. Many probably just don’t think about it. For others, they cite their mistrust of the mainstream media (which is actually a genetic fallacy, to be covered later); some even go as far to say the link between lung cancer and smoking is bogus.
Examples of confirmation bias include conspiracy theories, punditry, purchasing trends, reading material, and the culture wars. In other words, people tend to read newspapers, magazines, articles, and blogs that are in line with what they already believe. The same goes with the radio shows they listen to, the pundits they watch, and the books they buy. Remove confirmation bias, and conspiracy theories collapse like a Jenga Tower.
Confirmation bias also plays a role in perpetuating prejudice and stereotypes. If a white person stereotypes black people as lazy and criminally prone, (s)he will notice black people on welfare, on drugs, or crime committed by someone black. Perhaps the person will even be more afraid if they see a black person. This white person will ignore the fact that there are more white people on welfare or that most crime is committed by white people. In fact, white people are more likely to be victims of another white person. (S)he will ignore the possibility that a black person might not be on welfare to freeload off the system, but might have just faced hard times. (The same is true with any other kind of ethnic, racial, religious, or national stereotyping or prejudice.)
Now, for fighting confirmation bias. To quote Rolf Dobelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly, “If the word ‘exception’ crops up, prick up your ears. Often it hides the presence of discomfirming evidence.”(p. 20). Charles Darwin is an example of someone who fought confirmation bias, by writing down anything he found that contradicted his theory. Nowadays in science theories are proven by trying to disprove them. Another suggestion of Dobelli is to write down your beliefs and to seek out discomfirming evidence.
Why should we do this? First of all, as I noted above, it helps us out of our prejudices and provincialism, which decreases the chances of our supporting destructive policies. Recognizing and attempting to avoid the confirmation bias fosters humility, as we recognize our biases and the fact that we can be wrong. On a smaller scale, we each have choices we make each day. When people try to sell us things or convince us to make life choices, they tend to present all the good points, while ignoring the less flattering aspects. So, challenging the confirmation bias helps us make better decisions in our personal lives as well.
My mention of only paying attention to the good points makes me think of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy; however, I think I’ll talk about over thinking next, as we need to be balanced.