Overcoming Confirmation Bias

Overcoming Confirmation Bias

There are a number of different biases in judgment. We all have them.  One of the most powerful is “The Confirmation Bias”.   The confirmation bias refers to the tendency to selectively search for and consider information that confirms one’s beliefs.

I recently became a Patreon sponsor of Howard Jacobson’s Plant Yourself podcast.   For a small monetary donation, I receive weekly audio Healthy Habit Huddles.

In a recent Huddle, he discussed some tips to address the confirmation bias we often encounter in others when they discover that we follow a whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet.

The Influential Mind

Howard shares ideas he learned from reading the book “The Influential Mind” by Tali Sharot. The book’s intriguing subtitle is “What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others”.

Here are the three tips Howard shared:

1.)  Implant a Somewhat Unrelated New Idea

Howard uses the example of being concerned about a friend or relative’s reluctance to vaccinate her child due to fears of a vaccine’s potential to cause autism.

It would be a mistake to share evidence that debunks the theory that vaccines cause autism. – no matter how strong the evidence may be.

The best approach would be to ask her about the benefits of vaccines.  It’s better to ask her to weigh the relative risks rather than asking her to discard currently held beliefs.

Howard says that when he is asked the inevitable question “Where Do You Get Your Protein?”, he doesn’t respond with a diatribe explaining that it is silly to think that a WFPB diet is protein deficient.   He usually responds with “Where Do You Get Your Fiber?”  This helps the other person think about the various benefits of consuming a WFPB diet, rather than fight Howard about protein.

2.) Agree with the Original Idea and then Modify It

When people criticize a WFPB diet for being deficient in protein, you can use this technique to get them to rethink their position.  Howard Jacobson suggests a response similar to the following:

You’re right.  Protein is the most important macro nutrient, but it is not difficult for humans to meet our dietary protein needs as we have gotten enough throughout the uncertainties of our ancestral development.

3,) Appeal to Influential Sources

If you know that someone whom the skeptic admires agrees with your viewpoint, share this with them.  For example, if the skeptic is a big basketball fan and admires the best National Basketball Association (NBA) players.  You can inform him/her that Kyrie Irving  and other NBA players have adopted a plant-based diet.

Facts Are Not the Best Ammunition Against Confirmation Bias.

When we try to refute someone’s beliefs with facts and evidence, this will often result in the person experiencing a state of cognitive dissonance.  As defined by Barbara Dautrich, Professor Emerita, Educational Psychology, cognitive dissonance is the human discomfort (dissonance) we experience when we encounter new information that challenges “what we know.”

According to Dautrich, thoughtful people can tolerate the discomfort of opposing ideas long enough to listen/watch/read the arguments, information and evidence presented. They can evaluate the merits of the new information and adjust, modify or change their own “prior knowledge” to accommodate new and worthy information. That is how cognitive dissonance is resolved using our reasoning capacity.

However, persuasion expert Scott Adams claims that when decisions involve emotions, human beings do not behave rationally.  Emotions will almost always win out – you can count on it!

Diet is an Emotional Subject

It’s hard for me to imagine a subject that instigates a greater emotional response from people than diet.  When people encounter data that conflicts with their dietary beliefs, they will use confirmation bias to help them overcome cognitive dissonance rather than using cognitive dissonance to listen/watch/read the arguments, information and evidence presented. Therefore, they don’t evaluate the merits of the new information and they don’t modify their own “prior knowledge” to accommodate new and worthy information.

Dautrich states “Sadly, they may never gain the benefits of broader understanding and the importance of integrating new information”.

When people use confirmation bias to deal with cognitive dissonance, using facts, figures and evidence is not likely to persuade them to consider analyzing new information.  Their cognitive dissonance puts them in fighting mode, not thinking mode.

We All Experience Cognitive Dissonance

We all experience cognitive dissonance and it is frequently very hard to recognize. We must always try to address our biases.  When we encounter cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in others, we often scratch our head trying to figure out how this person can come to a conclusion that is clearly unsupported by, or counter to, strong scientific evidence.  We often mistakenly assume that this person is stupid.  Scott Adams states that cognitive dissonance has nothing to do with intelligence.  In fact, very often the most intelligent people are the most reluctant to reconsider their beliefs.

How To Spot when Confirmation Bias is used to Cope with Cognitive Dissonance

When your “opponent” distorts your idea by using what Scott Adams calls an absurd absolute, he/she is experiencing cognitive dissonance.  An absurd absolute is a distortion of your claim often expressed with a large portion of sarcasm. It is a clear misrepresentation of your original claim, which can be identified by observers, but not by the person experiencing cognitive dissonance.  Your opponent must distort your claim because he/she has run out of counterarguments, so they use an absurd absolute because it is easy to refute.

Scott Adams uses the following example:

You: People aren’t saving enough for retirement.

Other: Yes they are.

You: Here’s a link to 25 prestigious publications that have independently reached the same conclusion. They cite their sources.

Other: Ohhhh, because those publications have never been wrong. I get it. Ha ha! You just lost all credibility.

According to Adams, this is a sign that you won the argument. It may not feel that way, but you did.  You never stated that these publications were ALWAYS correct.  Your statement was that people are not saving enough for retirement.  Your opponent has no evidence to support his/her claim, so he/she resorts to hallucinating an absurd absolute. When you spot this, all the evidence in the world is not likely to get your opponent to reconsider his/her position.

Try A Different Approach.

If you’ve been frustrated with family, friends or colleagues who use confirmation bias to cope with their cognitive dissonance when confronted with strong evidence supporting WFPB diets, stop fighting them.

Try one of the three tips listed above.  Maybe, just maybe, you’ll make some headway.

Stay healthy and strong my Plantastic friends.

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