Fighting Confirmation Bias Is Like Fighting Gravity (so let’s stop fighting it)

Photo by meriç tuna on Unsplash

When you learn about confirmation bias two things are usually explicitly stated. Confirmation bias is inescapable and that we should do everything we can to escape it. This is like saying it’s impossible to escape gravity but you should do everything you can to try to escape it. 

Is it possible to hack our bias to confirm our beliefs in such a way that we don’t  need to feel like we’re constantly fighting gravity? 

To answer that question we need to understand confirmation bias more fundamentally. 

As I scroll through my social media feeds I feel confirmation bias. More specifically, the posts that confirm my beliefs feel good. They bring me joy. I’m more likely to share them. Those that don’t confirm my beliefs make me feel uneasy, frustrated, or annoyed. I’m more likely to be skeptical of those posts and try to find holes in the logic, which will relieve my discomfort. It will make me feel like I needn’t change my beliefs to embrace this new information. I might even share my skepticism with my followers. 

Confirmation bias operates constantly in background as we go about our lives. If we believe women are bad drivers, we pay attention to examples of women driving poorly and put less weight on men driving poorly. If we want the Tigers to win a baseball game, we will notice when the umpires favor the other team and hurt our team.  If we think “the left” is a cancer on society, we find examples to confirm this and ignore counter examples. Likewise for “the right.” Confirmation bias is always there, telling us where we should direct our attention.

Confirmation bias rides on the rails of the beliefs we have in our mind. In fact, in some sense it’s not so much a bias as it is our brain’s primitive defense mechanism searching for beliefs counter to our own and “protecting” us from them. We perceive ideas that don’t map onto our current beliefs as threatening – hence the negative affect. The negative emotion signals our brain to heighten awareness and seek safety. We find “safety” (hits of dopamine), by poking holes in the ideas attempting to infiltrate our current beliefs. That brings us comfort, but decreases the likelihood we integrate new information that may be true. 

If we are biased to confirm our current beliefs because we instinctively view new ideas as threatening, it’s hypothetically possible to adopt and preserve beliefs that embrace new ideas. That is, we can believe that new ideas enhance our current beliefs. 

Here are a few specific beliefs we could embrace. 

Nobody’s cornered the whole truth on anything

We might start by downloading a belief in our brains that no one person, or group, has a monopoly on truth. This includes you. If we believe this then when we encounter a belief that we disagree with, we will seek out the parts of the belief that enhance our understanding. We’ll seek to integrate both viewpoints, yielding a richer understanding of the given concept. When we find the valid points within the opposing viewpoint, it will confirm our belief (which will literally feel good). 

Essentially, if conformation bias drives us to find information that confirms our belief, then we can set it about the business of finding information that disconfirms our currents beliefs so as to enhance our total understanding what is true. We believe that diverse viewpoints are necessary to a complete understanding, so we seek out those viewpoints, and when we find the truth contained in them, we get the dopamine hit and the reinforcement.  

Our ego isn’t interested in what’s true, only that we’re safe

I’ve read “Don’t Label Me” by Irshad Manji twice and I’m working to become a Moral Courage Mentor. (Moral Courage is Irshad’s approach to psychologically healthy diversity and inclusion training.) In her book and in the course I learned much about the ego, or “egobrain,” as Irshad calls it. This isn’t the “woo woo” ego from Freud – it describes our innate, primitive, threat-detecting system. It’s what’s driving confirmation bias as I’ve described it above. 

Let me pick a totally hypothetical and unrealistic but illustrative example of the ego brain at work (that definitely didn’t happen…). The other day I had a… difference of opinion with my wife. We were getting things ready for a garage sale, which we had discussed would be good to spread over two days, Thursday and Friday. On Wednesday afternoon it became clear to her that we were not going to be ready to have the sale on Thursday. This was not clear to me. As I was cooking dinner she brought up several things we still needed to do to prepare, to which I thought (and probably said) “I guess we’ll stay up late and do them.” She mentioned how she was getting pretty anxious about publicizing the sale without those things done, to which I thought (and probably said), “Well it will be fine, we can get it done.” Finally, she said, “Do we really need to have this sale tomorrow?” 

At this moment I felt my ego say “That’s what we planned and lets just stay up late and do it. Why do we have to change things last minute?!?” However, I’m getting better at noticing when my ego is talking and when my calm, rational mind is talking. This was definitely ego. I thought a bit longer before ejecting the first reaction that came to my mind and realized that it was not necessary to have the sale the next day. My ego wanted me to cling to my old beliefs, my wife presented an idea that was counter to them, and I took the extra second to put my ego to rest, consider the problem more carefully, and ultimately concede that she made a good point. My belief about the importance of sticking to the plan was incorrect and defending it was irrational. 

As I hope you can see, the ego is generating much of our confirmation bias. In fact, we could call our “bias to confirm” our tendency to “protect our current beliefs.” Herein lies another belief we can adopt that would be healthy to confirm: we must routinely speak truth to the power of our ego if we are to update our beliefs about the world. 

Every person is a “plural” 

We have biases towards other people based on the labels they either ascribe to themselves or that we ascribe to them. These labels help us build a caricature in our mind of that person. We reduce them to labels, extrapolate all of their other characteristics from the labels, and then judge them. We quickly categorize a person as someone worth listening to or worth ignoring. 

While this labeling, categorizing, and judging makes navigating our lives easier, it’s unfortunately a house of cards that only fuels confirmation bias. We see a person with a MAGA hat on and we believe we know nearly everything about that person. When he does something that confirms our mental model of a MAGA-hat-wearing person, our belief is confirmed. If he does something that runs counter to it, we either don’t notice or write it off as an anomaly, not to be taken seriously. Pick your favorite tribe to hate on – the same thought process applies. 

However, if we decide to look, we will find that below these labels every person conceals a richer personhood, revealing that they are dynamic and multifaceted. Manji calls a person that consistently bucks their labels a “plural,” and reminds us that if we look (and listen) hard enough we’ll find that every person is a plural. 

If we believe that each person is a plural, then confirming that belief means we pass on snap-judgements and assume there’s more to them than the caricature we’ve built in our mind. 

If we believe that each person is a plural, then we’ll seek the complexity of each person. When we find it, we’ll confirm our bias, thereby reinforcing the assumption that each person is a plural. 

“Wait, you can’t just choose what to believe!”

Sure you can. We do it all the time. Sometimes we don’t realize we’re doing it, but we do. Many times it feels like reasoning leads to concluding that a belief is true, but just as often, if not more, we want to believe something is true and seek out the justification later. 

I think Apple makes better phones than Android makes and better computers than PCs. I’ve got, I think, good reasons to believe this but at no point in my life did I take a year and do an objective analysis on the features of each brand of technology. I had a couple good experiences with Apple products in high school and I’ve been happily feeding that belief ever since. 

More seriously, if we dig into our beliefs deeply enough I think we all get down to a priori assumptions that either consciously or subconsciously adopt. (Books have been written on that topic and I don’t have the space to explore that here. But if you think my argument falls apart because that claim is false, please let me know in the comments!) And, since humans are dynamic, we sometimes change those foundational beliefs. For example, I might go much of my life and assume that people are generally good people. I might then have an experience where I see the dark side of humanity and conclude that people are, in fact, generally bad. 

Is either true in a fundamental sense? 

How would we begin to answer such a question even remotely objectively? 

We can say that adopting either of those beliefs will impact the course of an individual’s life in meaningful ways, right down to daily interactions with other people. I think we can also conclude that a critical mass of individuals adopting either belief will have society-wide ramifications. Finally, in some sense one can choose to adopt either belief – and suffer the consequences. 

Now, not all beliefs are are equally true or pragmatic or will result individual or group-level flourishing. Not all are equally Good. Another book-length exploration would be required to explore what we mean by a Good belief, but for the narrow purpose of this essay let’s assume that it means developing a form of confirmation bias that doesn’t require us to constantly fight ourselves. 

I’m arguing that, given the malleability of our beliefs, we should adopt the the following: 

  1. None of us knows all of the truth which means the other people we interact with must know something important that we don’t – we should listen accordingly.
  2. Our ego often blinds us from the truth in an effort to maintain our current beliefs. This means we need to constantly be mindful of when it’s at work and keep it in check. 
  3. Every person is a plural. This means that we will be slow to put people in boxes and we’ll seek out the characteristics that demonstrate the individuality in their character. 

I’ve adopted these beliefs and I can tell you that my mind is in a healthier place. Remembering that people are plurals keeps me looking for the nuance in their personality. It motivates me to keep looking beyond the caricature I’ve built in my mind. Keeping my ego in check helps me avoid arguments for the sake of being right, as I explained in the story about my wife. I’m not perfect, but more often I find myself taking a breath to respond thoughtfully as opposed to reacting quickly. Remembering that I don’t know everything about anything motivates me to engage with those I disagree with to figure out what I’m missing. Finally, I find myself gravitating towards people who seem to believe the same things. 

In short, in feeding my confirmation bias I gain a richer understanding of nearly everything. 

We should always be learning something new

Last week I started auditing a class on Hapkido, which is a Korean martial art. A friend asked if I’d be interested in attending the once-a-week class with him and I said I would. Having never done any martial art at any time in my life (I don’t even think I’ve watched any of the Karate Kid movies in their entirety), I was nervous. However, partway through the class I realized that there is clear value in learning something completely new.

I want to list a few feelings I had, as I think they reminded me of what it’s like to be a learner, as an adult or a teenager.

  • I didn’t want to make any mistakes. When the instructor demonstrated something, I wanted to do it perfectly. This notion is ridiculous because, as the instructor also pointed out, it takes thousands of repetitions before something becomes muscle memory. For as much as I preach the importance of mistakes in learning, I was shocked at how somewhere in my guts I still didn’t want to make them.
  • I didn’t want the instructor to come by me. Or at least if he did I wanted to be working on my right side (which I thought I was better at). I was afraid he’d find something I was doing wrong. Which I consciously knew would not be bad as it would get corrected and then I’d improve.
  • I compared myself to the people around me, unconsciously ranking myself. Better than that person, worse than those two, etc.
  • Frustration. I’ve never been particularly coordinated and I was consistently frustrated at knowing in my mind what I wanted my body to do, but struggling to make my body do it.

I walked off the mat at the end of class and my mind was reeling.

“Now I know why students are apprehensive to ask questions.”

“Now I understand better why a student might get uncomfortable while I hover over them watching them work out a problem.”

“I have to constantly remind myself to embrace the difficulty. That’s where growth comes from, but it’s difficult to do in practice.”

“Having an instructor that recognized we were all learning was incredibly helpful. He created an atmosphere where mistakes were not viewed as setbacks, but part of the process.”

My main takeaway was that these are feelings I need to constantly grapple with. I need to try to put myself in situations in which I’m the learner, with relative frequency. It helps me better understand where my students are coming from and I think will ultimately help me become a better teacher.

Also, here’s one more thought that has popped in my head recently and probably doesn’t need an entire blog post, but fits with the theme in this one. I’m in my fifth year teaching precalculus, AP calculus, and algebra II and I can feel myself having less empathy with my students, with people learning the concepts for the first time. The first year I taught these courses I think I had a better understanding of their struggles as I was solidifying my understanding of the concepts prior to teaching them as well. I’m not entirely sure what this means for my teaching now, but I think awareness of it is important.

My Brain on Lesson Planning

Okay. I’ve a got a few minutes. Where is what I did last year? Ah, that’s right. We did that activity, with some direct instruction following. Seems like I didn’t quite the point across when I closed the lesson. Like the kids still struggled with parts of this on the quiz. Maybe I should change it. Maybe I should just start from scratch. Did I leave myself a note or anything?

Check Google doc for comments

Nothing. Good job me. I’ve got to do a better job of that. But sometimes it’s tough to find time. Yeah but it pays off and saves time eventually. Like it would be saving time right now. Okay. I get it. Anyway. I don’t have time to totally revamp it. How can I tweak this to make it work better? Maybe I’ll start with a more open ended question. I read that’s a more effective way to start a lesson then just with direct instruction. Okay. So what’s the question or task?

Goes on the Internet. Checks the MTBoS search engine. Writes down 4 ideas.

Well the first two are probably too much work/time. I might be able to tweak the third though. That would give students a chance to discuss some solving methods before we do the lesson. But I know Sam won’t participate. Man, what is his deal? What is my deal with him? Did I make him mad at some point? I need to talk to him and try improve that relationship. Maybe he’d be more willing to work with his peers. But, he’s doing fine in class so maybe I should just leave him alone. Ugh. I’ll sort that out tomorrow. Anyway. I think this will work. But it’s probably going to take longer than last year. Yeah it’s definitely going to take longer. I really only wanted to spend a day on this. But if they learn this better because I spent more time on it, will it pay off in the future? I don’t think so. It’s not really a topic that builds on itself. But shouldn’t we try to teach every topic really well? Even if it doesn’t get built on later? Maybe. Otherwise why am I teaching it? Well some students will get it and remember it, just fewer than if we spent more time. Okay. So let’s do it, we’ll reduce the assignment a couple of problems and carve out 5 or 10 minutes tomorrow to wrap up anything we don’t get to.

Phone rings

“Yes, I’ll send her down when she gets to class. Thanks. Bye”

She really needs to be in class today. I need to remember to make a copy of the notes for her. She won’t be able to make up the discussion we’ll be having but I guess there’s no way around that.

Glances at papers to grade next to the phone

Ugh. I guess those aren’t going to get done today. Maybe I can do those on my prep tomorrow. Dang. I need to finish that lesson. I think I’m ready to update the weekly plans. I need to make sure I can accommodate this for my autistic student. Did I write down those notes on him yesterday? Nope.

Writes down notes in observation document

Okay. I can make this work for him as well. I need to remember to go through this the morning before we do it.

Adds it to to-do list

Well that should be all set. Just need to look at my other two classes and do the same thing… I hope those don’t need revision. They probably do. I mean how can you assume that they’re in their best form? You’ve been teaching for 5 years. They may not be but they should be in good enough form. They’ll have to be because I don’t have time to rework either of them. Man I hope we have school tomorrow. If we don’t then I can just……..

Order – How Mathematics is Life

Humans are in a constant pursuit of order. We try to develop schemas to help us deal with frequently occurring situations. We constantly look for patterns. We try to make our lives somewhat predictable.

The brain doesn’t like to think. Thinking is hard. So the brain naturally gravitates towards pattern finding.

This is mathematics.

Mathematicians look around the world for patterns. Looking for truth. They take things they know to be true, and build on them. Constantly growing the body of patterns we know to be true.

The difference between me noticing that whenever it’s cloudy out I’m a bit gloomy and that the derivative of a parabolic function is linear, is that the latter is true always. It’s a fact that exists regardless belief, mood, perspective, or measurement.

I wrote the idea for this post down months ago, but it seemed relevant as this week I embarked on teaching my algebra II class how to factor polynomials. Something that nobody does, with the exception of math teachers and their students. (And I mean that quite literally. I went to the twittersphere and came up empty.) My advice to students was similar to other seemingly obscure content we learn in mathematics.

Treat these problems like puzzles and look for the patterns.

Because pattern finding, curiosity, and creativity in problem solving are all skills that are valuable and can be improved with practice.

Nobody does a puzzle and while they’re doing it says, “This is never going to help me in my life.” I don’t claim to be an expert on the motivation of puzzlers, but I did puzzles just to figure them out. I enjoyed the mental exercise.

This is how I want my students to approach math problems. I want them to enjoy and appreciate the pursuit of solving the problem. I know that’s abstract and might be difficult for teenagers to grab onto, but I’m not sure of any other justification for some of the concepts we teach.