May 26, 2017

Confirmation Bias

A doctor wanted to demonstrate the ill-effects of alcohol to a group of alcoholics. So he took a glass of whisky and placed a worm in it. After some time the worm dies. He turns to his audience and asks what they learnt from the experiment. Pat came the reply from one of the alcoholics- "It means if you drink alcohol you won't have any worms in your stomach." The above is an example of 'selective listening' or what we call 'confirmation bias'. We fit reality in to our beliefs and not vice-versa.

Philosophers and scientists have long-struggled with the confirmation bias. We have all come across the famous quote- "the eyes only see what the mind wants to." This sort of behaviour happens to all of us and is an example of a heuristic (short- cut) employed by the brain in order to take quick decisions. Take the case of the gambler who's on a losing streak. The evidence is clear that things are not going well for him and yet he will continue as he sees the streak of losses as a test of his 'belief' in his own skill.

One of the first steps to counter the bias is of course to be aware of it. When you want to buy that new car your mind will automatically start telling you about how fantastic the new car looks and what great mileage it gives and how your social-status improves and/or how you need to live life in the moment etc. When you want to buy a new stock you will see that the reports are great and the share price is high (or low!) and that the economy is about to take off due to GST etc. Similarly if you are going to buy a new property then your mind will tell you that real estate is beaten down (so a great time to buy!) or I need to have another house or this area will boom etc.
PS: note you will have opposite sentiments if you are looking to sell your car(look how old it has become), sell your stock (it has run too high) or sell your property (I needed a bigger house).

The second step is to actively seek dis-confirming evidence. Ask your self 'why I shouldn't do it?'. Why I shouldn't buy that car? (Not, 'why shouldn't I buy that car', small but important difference). Maybe my present car will run another few years? Maybe financially it isn't a very smart proposition? Maybe if I spent some money on the present car I could improve it's mileage etc? Maybe I could use the money better elsewhere? It's only when you look at both sides objectively will you be able to make a more informed decision.

I'll end this with a poem from Shannon L. Adler that further illustrates the concept-
Read it with sorrow and you will feel hate.
Read it with anger and you will feel vengeful.
Read it with paranoia and you will feel confusion.
Read it with empathy and you will feel compassion.
Read it with love and you will feel flattery.
Read it with hope and you will feel positive.
Read it with humor and you will feel joy.
Read it without bias and you will feel peace.
Do not read it at all and you will not feel a thing.