Confirmational Bias

It happens all the time and you might find yourself doing it. We decide how things are and then we find evidence to support our ideas. It happens in relationships where we might look for evidence that a person is a villain or a saint and ignore evidence to the contrary, building a story about someone and leaving little room for them or our ideas about them to change. When we do this we leave little room for them to be the complex human beings that they certainly are. It happens in science and/or when we talk about things we are passionate about. People tend to look for evidence to support their hypotheses and premises. They may even ignore evidence that contradicts their ideas. I have seen it happen with well known and successful researchers. It is critical that we don’t hold so tight to our hypotheses that we miss contradictory evidence that might lead us closer to lasting truths and knowledge.

How can people fight this natural tendency? Lifehacker provides an excellent summary of tips on How to Determine if a Controversial Statement is Scientifically True for the non-scientist. This is a great link to provide to undergraduates because the tips are important for scientific literacy. But “Learning to Avoid Confirmational Bias” if achieved by the scientists would strengthen our science and if used by the masses might improve our politics. What issues are you thinking about that could use a good look from the opposite point of view?

As a Department Head, I am lucky enough to have the perfect tool for smashing Confirmational Bias – it is called “Faculty Meeting.” I almost always walk out of a faculty meeting with different point of view. The benefit of the faculty meeting as a clearing house, backboard, and incubator for ideas continues to be a pleasant surprise. It seems each month I just about forget how valuable they are and then we have another.

I hope you all have people you can talk to that will help you question your beliefs and ideas. Maybe academic departments are made for helping us to questions our assumptions and beliefs.

Have a great week questioning everything (especially authority),


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