What would you think if your best friend, who texts you almost daily, hasn’t been in contact for over a week. Let’s say that you’ve texted, emailed, and even called her. Still no response. Would you decide that she’s angry with you and start worrying about what you did to upset her? Would you assume she has been in a terrible accident and is in the hospital, unconscious? Or would you think that she is probably busy with her kids and just doesn’t have the time to connect, and she knows that you’ll understand?
You might think that your response, whatever it is, makes total sense; but research tells us that what you assume about your friend will be determined in part by something called Confirmation Bias. Science Daily says that confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.”
And it won’t just color which scenario you automatically choose in such a situation. It will also affect how you respond to your friend going forward.
For instance, say you believe that she is angry at you. You might worry at first about what you’ve done wrong. You might even send her a text apologizing and asking her to explain. And if she still doesn’t respond? You might just get angry at her, believing that your anger is justified, since she is angry at you for nothing that you have done and is refusing to talk to you or accept your apology.
Even if you find out afterwards that one of the other scenarios is the actual truth, you might remain angry with her, unconsciously maintaining the belief that she was mistreating you because she was angry with you. Despite the clear evidence that you had misunderstood what was actually happening.
How does this work?
My PT colleague Shahram Heshmet, Ph.D. explains:
Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.
The so-called “evidence” that convinces us that what we already believe is what is true does not have to be very strong, because our predisposition (or prejudice) affects what we take in from any situation. It turns out that even scientists, supposedly objectively dealing with unbiased research results, can fall victim to confirmation bias, seeing in the results of their research what they expected to find in the first place.
Confirmation bias is so powerful that, as shown in a study co-authored by Michael Cipriano and Thomas S Gruca (see below for the reference), even when there is concrete evidence showing that our beliefs are wrong, and even when holding onto those beliefs costs us money, we tend to stick to our incorrect conclusions.
As Warren Buffett famously put it, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”
Why do we do this? Neuropsychologists like Daniel Siegel tell us that once a belief pattern has been established, our neurons want to fire in line with that pattern, which makes it difficult to change a belief system. Scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson say that some people “will accept whatever they hear on the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview—not because it is actually true or because they have evidence to support it. The striking thing is that it would not take much effort to establish validity in most of these cases… but people prefer reassurance to research.”
Some theorists have suggested that in the face of an increasingly complex world, our brains find it easier and more comfortable to make decisions based on these old neuron patterns. Trying to filter through all of the possibly conflicting information that is available is just too much work. In some cases, this boils down to the probability that we prefer consistency to truth.
But confirmation bias can affect your judgment, sometimes in ways that can be quite damaging to you. And one problem is that even when we know that the bias of previous beliefs might be affecting our judgment and our relationships, we still stick with those old beliefs.
For instance, a man whose wife corrected him in front of other people was furious with her for having humiliated him. His wife later apologized but explained that she had cut him off before he could say something that would have embarrassed one of their friends. Although the man admitted that he was glad that she had chosen to stop him from saying something he would have regretted, he could not stop being angry at her for embarrassing him.
What can you do about confirmation bias in your own life? First, recognize that it exists, even if you don’t see it.
Then, practice questioning information that you immediately believe to be true. The Farnum Street Blog offers these simple questions to ask yourself as a disconfirmation exercise. Try it with this post or anytime you read a new post, for example:
Which parts did I automatically agree with?
Which parts did I ignore or skim over without realizing?
How did I react to the points which I agreed or disagreed with?
Did this post confirm any ideas I already had? Why?
What if I thought the opposite of those ideas?
As with any exercise, the more often you ask yourself these questions, the more easily will you be able to discern when you are automatically accepting information simply because it fits with your existing belief system. And not accepting everything that you already believe can improve your life in many ways.
So, as for the friend who hasn’t texted you back? She most likely has her own confirmation bias going on. Maybe she interpreted something you said in a way that has nothing to do with what you meant, and she isn’t willing to give you a chance to explain, because she is convinced that what she thinks is the truth. Or maybe she is having problems with her boyfriend or one of her children and is sure that you will be critical of how she is handling it.
No matter what you say in your texts or phone messages, because of confirmation bias she continues to hear your words as meaning what she already thinks they mean, not what you want them to mean. Is there a way to change her beliefs? Maybe.
One technique that sometimes works is to leave a message on all of the mediums you’ve already tried, saying simply, “I love you and I miss you. Can we talk?” It might work, but it might not.
Whether or not she does finally get back to you, keep in mind that you are both probably going to continue to hold onto what you already believe to be true. If at all possible, really work to keep an open mind about what’s going on with her. Listen to what she says.
Try to take in her belief system. Let her know that you understand how she feels, and that you’re very sorry that she was so distressed by something you did or said (if that’s what the problem is). And then try to communicate that that’s not how you felt or what you meant. If you’re both very lucky, she’ll follow your lead and you’ll return to your old closeness.