“Should I text him?” I asked a fifth friend for the fifth time about a guy who I under zero circumstances should’ve swiped right for in the first place. The first four buds had said as much, but this last one took a different approach: “You already know what you want to do, so just do it,” he said. Of course, he was right—and I did. (Unsurprisingly, the “situationship” from that text went down in flames a few months later.)
I didn’t have the word for it at the time, but seeking out the particular dating nudge I wanted to hear is what’s known as confirmation bias, a.k.a. “the biased search for information,” according to Max Bazerman, PhD, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and coauthor of The Power of Experiments. I wasn’t actually looking for objective advice. If I had been, I would’ve listened to the first person who told me not to text him. I wanted someone to confirm what I already believed (or at least hoped) to be true: that a single text would somehow salvage an already flailing flirtation.
Here’s the thing: Pretty much everyone experiences confirmation bias. Over the years, experts have called it “ubiquitous” and even a “built-in feature” of the mind. Which makes sense, as biases in general “all tend to be shortcuts that help us get through life efficiently,” says Bazerman. Think of confirmation bias as a split-second natural tendency that kicks into action “once we have a hypothesis, an idea, or a belief,” he says. It’s essentially what drives us to seek additional information that tells us we’re right and dismiss evidence to the contrary.
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Confirmation bias can improve your relationships with people who aren’t exactly like you, expose you to fresh info, and just make life more interesting.
Let’s say you want takeout from a new restaurant, and a friend recommends their fave spot. Even though you don’t have any attachment to the locale, as soon as you consider it, you look for support backing up that decision (believing five-star Yelp reviews, finding reasons to discount negative ones), says Bazerman. And if another pal comes along and offers a second suggestion, you’re likely to be rigid about the first. “We’re not looking to disconfirm where we were already headed,” he says.
But reinforcing your own stances all the time comes at a cost: You sacrifice the quality of your decisions for speed and ease. And if you’re predisposed to worry, taking those shortcuts makes it easy to always confirm your worst-case scenario and can lead to rumination, says Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD, chair of psychology at Amherst College and author of The Positive Shift. You dwell on bad possibilities and end up in a cycle of negativity, she explains—even increasing your risk for clinical depression.
All the more reason to consistently challenge your own biased thoughts: It actually helps you feel better by pulling you out of the worry cycle. Not to mention, it can improve your relationships with people who aren’t exactly like you, expose you to fresh info, and just make life more interesting. (And who doesn’t want all of that?)
Heads up: Because confirmation bias is so ingrained, it’s not always easy to avoid. But it definitely can be done—as soon as you learn how it sneaks into your life, often undetected, and the tactics that retrain your brain to stop it in its tracks.
Now let's get deeper into why you *want* to bust bias in all areas of your life—and exactly how to do so. Here we go...
You’ll elevate your understanding of your health.
Tend to seek out a specific digital diagnosis the second you experience symptoms? (Who, me? Never.) That’s classic confirmation bias—and it’s likely become even more prevalent since the spread of COVID-19. Of course, if you think you’re really sick, it’s obviously best to get yourself checked out. But jumping to the worst conclusions with every sniffle or random ache does more harm than good.
Think about the last time you had, say, a headache: If you told yourself it was NBD and assumed it would go away with a pain reliever—and looked up your exact combo of symptoms to back that up—that’s a relatively “good” form of confirmation bias, says Sanderson. But if you immediately started spiraling and Googled “brain aneurysm,” picking through the symptoms until you found a few of yours? Not so much.
You can actually think yourself into feeling even worse, which causes unnecessary stress, kinda totally undermining the benefits of this mental shortcut, she adds. Yikes.
Ditch your self-diagnosis distress. Rather than trying to retrofit an answer to your symptoms, do a search of the symptom itself to cast a wider net and allow yourself to compare multiple explanations, suggests Sanderson. Off-line, talk through your ailment with a friend or family member you trust, but whose approach to taking care of themselves might be a tad more laid-back than your own (just sayin’). They can help you recognize all the indicators that you don’t have some life-threatening health problem, and you can enjoy a sigh of relief.
You’ll expand your worldview by exploring new perspectives.
All those little mental loopholes may seem benign when choosing between Seamless spots. But they are deceptively dangerous when they influence your perception of people who differ from you in race, religion, sexual orientation, body ability, the list goes on.
Let’s get real for a second: Systemic racism (everything from school budget disparities to police brutality) has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds the past few months, and “confirmation bias perpetuates it,” says mental health practitioner Catrice M. Jackson, an anti-racism educator and the founder of the Socially Conscious Women’s Collective.
Your hypothesis about how society works—and what people who differ from you are like—is based on your experience (socio-economic background, what your parents taught you) and education. And because of confirmation bias, you’re likely to seek out information—and people, like political candidates—supportive of those beliefs. When you’re not exposed to people and ideas that are off your beaten path, you may not be able to see systems that have benefited you and put others at a disadvantage. If you don’t think something’s broke (because it isn’t for you!), it’s tough to see the need for action to fix systemic problems, Jackson adds.
Change your mind. The first step to dismantling racist, homophobic, and sexist systems is to examine your own deep-rooted ways of thinking. (You have them, even if you think you don’t.) Ask yourself, “What stereotypes have I believed, even if I haven’t been aware of them?” (Maybe you underestimated a colleague’s creds because of their background and missed out on collaborating on an awesome project.) You can explore the opposite of your inclinations with curiosity: Read books by authors of a diff demo, follow people in other online communities, and get news from multiple sources. These habits can give you a more nuanced outlook, help you examine your privilege, and give insight into how to help others.
Your sense of self will grow stronger.
Turns out, nothing is safe from confirmation bias—even your innermost thoughts about your own damn self! (Can my brain and I please get a li’l privacy?) It shows up when you scroll through social media, playing the comparison game—and inadvertently reinforces the ideas you have about yourself, including the totally BS ones.
Case in point: I’ve been running consistently for years, but I don’t consider myself an actual “runner.” And when I see peoples’ pictures mid-stride, their Apple Watch snaps, and sweaty selfies on Instagram, the evil little voice in my head says, “See? That’s what real runners do.” For you, that voice might pipe up in your head when a friend gets a promotion (They’re so talented, unlike me) or hits a new relationship milestone (She’s engaged, and I still can’t get a text back?). The more you compare yourself to others, the more you fall into a cycle of negativity (rumination strikes again!).
By continuing to dwell on those downer thoughts, you’re stuck in a fixed mindset about your self-worth (I can’t change, things won’t get better), and that can have long-term effects. Over their life span, women tend to have higher rates of anxiety and depression than men, Sanderson points out, and experts theorize this tendency to ruminate might be one reason why.
Stomp out doubt. Clamp down on confirmation bias by flipping and reversing the mindset, Missy Elliott–style, says Sanderson: “Instead of comparing yourself to the friend who posted about running nine miles, compare yourself to…yourself.” Think about how far you’ve come in achieving a goal, rather than how far you may need to go to catch up to someone else. Switching your POV enables you to focus on personal growth and possibility, creating a cycle of positive thoughts. Need reinforcement? Have a pal at the ready who loves bragging about your badassery—and vice versa. When you stop clinging to self-proclaimed identities, you open yourself up to all the possibilities of who you can be. Here for that.
Being less biased begins with more (and diverse) education. Start with these resources:
This article appears in the October 2020 issue of Women’s Health. Subscribe now.