Probably you are familiar with this: You always received decent marks at school but once you came home with a bad one, your parents went nuts and said you would always get terrible marks. But did you know that this is a psychological effect every person (sub)consciously has to deal with? It’s called confirmation bias which is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. But what effect does it have on our everyday life?
The example above is perhaps quite memorable but doesn’t really fit into a daily routine. Maybe this is a more common scenario: You want to go shopping in your local supermarket. First of all you get into your car and have to stop at a red light – as always. After finally arriving at the store you quickly grab what you intended to buy and move to the checkout counter to find that only one is open and that there is a massive queue – as always. You drive back home and can’t find a parking space in front of your house and have to park miles away – as always. After carrying your groceries all the way home the elevator doesn’t await you and you have to wait for it – as always. While sitting at home you think about your terrible shopping trip and all the bad luck you had. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong – as always.
But let’s take a look from a different point of view: You want to go shopping in your local supermarket. First of all you get out of your apartment and realize that the elevator is already there. After arriving at the store you find a parking space just in front of the entrance. You quickly grab what you intended to buy and on your way back home you have synchronized traffic lights. While sitting at home you don’t waste a single thought on your shopping trip.
This story is a good example for confirmation bias. The first part shows the tendency of people to favor information that confirm their negative beliefs while the second part illustrates how unflavored input is ignored.
But there are differences between trivial and serious situations in our daily life. The example above is rather superficial. More fatal are opinion-forming actions or events. The best model for this is the discrepancy between science and religion. Fanatic believers keep on ignoring proven facts that attack their religious beliefs considering the evolution-theory. Also there are people rating the happening of good things as “God’s work” and forget about the bad things happening in the same amount. Furthermore confirmation bias causes people to believe conspiracy-theories by listing a couple of arguments that prove their theory and leaving out facts that confirm the opposite (e.g. moon-landing, 9-11, illuminati,....). It appears so that people are narrow minded and often become obsessed by implausible and irrational ideas.
A major effect of confirmation bias is seen in the media - not only nowadays but in history, too. Best examples therefore are propaganda in Nazi-Germany and during the Cold War. People’s opinions and lives today are formed by the media (e.g. wikipedia, yellow press). Those are written by people with their own opinions which they want to distribute in the world, by letting not-fitting-facts go by the board they are programming the filters in our minds to confirm their theories or motives. So they are making sure humans are victimized by confirmation bias just as they (the media) want. That can be seen best in articles about celebrities who are often illustrated in certain ways.
The confirmation bias has a big impact on us in everyday life and constantly affects our thinking. But how huge it is on our society is hard to tell and can only be fully seen and understood in the future. But we should try to minimize it on our own by questioning what we read and think critically.