27 April 2014
Last week I was copied in on a series of email exchanges between three people. One of the messages made me think. It contained a long litany of things that Muslims around the world are doing wrong, but with very little recognition of the many positive things Muslims worldwide are doing.
The writer was clearly seeing the world through the lens of his belief system, something we are all prone to.
Accordingly I devoted my eighteenth "Thought for the week" this morning on BBC Radio Manchester to explaining the concept of "Confirmation bias." I first encountered this in writings on investment psychology; once you have bought an investment, you keep finding reasons why it was a good decision!
As human beings, we are very good at seeing what we want to see. When we believe something, everywhere we look, we see more information that supports what we already believe. However, we are very bad at seeing information which conflicts with our existing beliefs.
This behaviour is so common that psychologists have a name for it. They call it "Confirmation bias." We all suffer from it. Sadly some more than others. Try talking with someone who believes in a conspiracy theory!
I come across confirmation bias quite regularly. I know Muslims who believe that almost everywhere Muslims are being persecuted and downtrodden. I know non-Muslims who believe that Muslims are the source of almost every problem in the world today. Both groups of people can give long lists of facts as evidence for what they believe. What both groups ignore is the evidence that contradicts their beliefs. They are prisoners of confirmation bias.
The proliferation of TV news channels and Internet news sources has only made things worse. It is very easy to only watch a news channel that supports the political beliefs you already have. In the same way, if you choose the right sources of Internet news, they will continuously feed you with extra news that supports the beliefs that you already have.
Is there a cure for confirmation bias? I believe that sadly there is no permanent cure. If you are human you are in danger of suffering from confirmation bias. However there are some things that can make it less likely.
The most important first step is simply being aware of the risk. If you know that there is such a thing as confirmation bias, you are already on the way to being healed.
It also helps to become more formal about your beliefs. Write down exactly what you believe. Then write down what evidence would prove your belief and what evidence would disprove it. Then, and only then, go looking for the evidence both ways.
In other words, learn to how to think!