Confirmation Bias - Explanations

Explanations

Confirmation bias is often described as a result of automatic, unintentional strategies rather than deliberate deception. According to Robert Maccoun, most biased evidence processing occurs through a combination of both "cold" (cognitive) and "hot" (motivated) mechanisms.

Cognitive explanations for confirmation bias are based on limitations in people's ability to handle complex tasks, and the shortcuts, called heuristics, that they use. For example, people may judge the reliability of evidence by using the availability heuristic, i.e. how readily a particular idea comes to mind. It is also possible that people can only focus on one thought at a time, so find it difficult to test alternative hypotheses in parallel. Another heuristic is the positive test strategy identified by Klayman and Ha, in which people test a hypothesis by examining cases where they expect a property or event to occur. This heuristic avoids the difficult or impossible task of working out how diagnostic each possible question will be. However, it is not universally reliable, so people can overlook challenges to their existing beliefs.

Motivational explanations involve an effect of desire on belief, sometimes called "wishful thinking". It is known that people prefer pleasant thoughts over unpleasant ones in a number of ways: this is called the "Pollyanna principle". Applied to arguments or sources of evidence, this could explain why desired conclusions are more likely to be believed true. According to experiments that manipulate the desirability of the conclusion, people demand a high standard of evidence for unpalatable ideas and a low standard for preferred ideas. In other words, they ask, "Can I believe this?" for some suggestions and, "Must I believe this?" for others. Although consistency is a desirable feature of attitudes, an excessive drive for consistency is another potential source of bias because it may prevent people from neutrally evaluating new, surprising information. Social psychologist Ziva Kunda combines the cognitive and motivational theories, arguing that motivation creates the bias, but cognitive factors determine the size of the effect.

Explanations in terms of cost-benefit analysis assume that people do not just test hypotheses in a disinterested way, but assess the costs of different errors. Using ideas from evolutionary psychology, James Friedrich suggests that people do not primarily aim at truth in testing hypotheses, but try to avoid the most costly errors. For example, employers might ask one-sided questions in job interviews because they are focused on weeding out unsuitable candidates. Yaacov Trope and Akiva Liberman's refinement of this theory assumes that people compare the two different kinds of error: accepting a false hypothesis or rejecting a true hypothesis. For instance, someone who underestimates a friend's honesty might treat him or her suspiciously and so undermine the friendship. Overestimating the friend's honesty may also be costly, but less so. In this case, it would be rational to seek, evaluate or remember evidence of their honesty in a biased way. When someone gives an initial impression of being introverted or extroverted, questions that match that impression come across as more empathic. This suggests that when talking to someone who seems to be an introvert, it is a sign of better social skills to ask, "Do you feel awkward in social situations?" rather than, "Do you like noisy parties?" The connection between confirmation bias and social skills was corroborated by a study of how college students get to know other people. Highly self-monitoring students, who are more sensitive to their environment and to social norms, asked more matching questions when interviewing a high-status staff member than when getting to know fellow students.

Psychologists Jennifer Lerner and Philip Tetlock distinguish two different kinds of thinking process. Exploratory thought neutrally considers multiple points of view and tries to anticipate all possible objections to a particular position, while confirmatory thought seeks to justify a specific point of view. Lerner and Tetlock say that when people expect to need to justify their position to other people, whose views they already know, they will tend to adopt a similar position to those people, and then use confirmatory thought to bolster their own credibility. However, if the external parties are overly aggressive or critical, people will disengage from thought altogether, and simply assert their personal opinions without justification. Lerner and Tetlock say that people only push themselves to think critically and logically when they know in advance they will need to explain themselves to others who are well-informed, genuinely interested in the truth, and whose views they don't already know. Because those conditions rarely exist, they argue, most people are using confirmatory thought most of the time.

Read more about this topic:  Confirmation Bias

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