Notes & Essays

Hate a Politician? Love a TV Network? You May Have Confirmation Bias, and That’s Dangerous

When you’re unwilling to accept information that contradicts what you already believe, that’s confirmation bias.
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ILLUSTRATOR ROLAND MAE TANGLAO
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Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for information that supports what you already firmly believe to be true.  

I used to know someone who was a big fan of a female politician. He always filled his Facebook feed with news of the government official’s exploits, mostly glowing accounts of her many accomplishments. This was in spite of the many criticisms hurled against her and allegations of corruption involving officials close to her. My old friend wasn’t swayed though, and kept posting links to stories that detailed how much his idol was truly making a difference in people’s lives.

I have another friend who’s convinced that every guy he meets is gay. Actually, scratch that: he thinks every guy in the known universe is gay. When a reputable entertainment website runs a story about a male celebrity’s supposed dalliances with women, it’s ignored. But when one dubious gossip site insinuates that same celebrity is getting it on with his male gym buddy, he’ll share that piece of news with the unexpressed but obvious message of “I knew it!”

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What is confirmation bias

These two examples illustrate instances of a phenomenon called confirmation bias. The layman’s definition is the tendency to look for proof that confirms or justifies one’s own preconceived notions, while completely ignoring any evidence to the contrary. It’s basically favoring data that props up whatever we’ve already decided to be true, while simultaneously dismissing the opposite as false or unreliable. 

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Think of a TV show that you’re absolutely obsessed with, say, Friends, Game of Thrones, or Fleabag. Wouldn’t you be more likely to share an article on your social media newsfeed that celebrates that same show and discusses in detail what exactly makes it great, instead of a story that picks it apart and points out glaring errors or offers constructive criticism? You feel better when a close friend agrees with you when you say you believe that another friend should break up with her boyfriend because he’s no good for her. When you have an irrational hatred for a particular company or businessperson, you’ll tend to listen to all the bad things you hear about them and tell yourself you were right to dislike them, instead of trying to figure out why you developed that hatred in the first place. And when you have a particularly awful experience with a restaurant or hotel, don’t you feel like searching online for people who’ve posted similar opinions about it so you can say, “See! It’s not just me!”

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Confirmation bias is human nature. We’re wired to seek validation for our beliefs. And with politics as heated and as divisive as it’s ever been in this country, it’s all the more pronounced. You hate President Duterte? Then every story about his outbursts and questionable policy decisions is more reason why voting him into office was the worst mistake this country has ever done. Nothing he says or does will ever get you to support him. And if you absolutely despise Leni Robredo, then you’re probably not even thinking about all the good she’s done with what little power her office has. To you, she's just a grandstanding election-stealer. It’s the same with most every other appointed or elected official: Filipinos will always have an opinion about them, and they’re probably sticking by those beliefs, not even bothering to consider all the stuff to the contrary.

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The first step is acceptance

People who already support one person will most likely keep building their image of him or her by picking and choosing from the kind of news that reaches them. At the same time, it’s unlikely any amount of good deed or some sort of redeeming quality will make people change their mind about anybody they’ve already decided to dislike. It’s a bit like dismissing acclaim for Leonardo Dicaprio in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood when you’re so convinced Joaquin Phoenix deserves the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in The Joker.

It affects our perception of media, too. How many times have we asked, or heard somebody ask, why does so-and-so newspaper always publishes negative stories about Politician A? Why is TV Network X seem to be alloting more airtime for Politician B in its newscasts? It’s likely we ignore the times when media run stories contrary to our opinions of certain candidates. And even if we do take notice, what are the chances we’ll actually stop and consider the report, instead of making a snide, cynical comment? (Of course, whether or not the media outlets are trustworthy and completely impartial is up for debate, and is fodder for discussion for another time).

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In other words, more often than not, we scour news sources and the social media landscape thinking to ourselves we’re looking for information, when what we’re really after is confirmation: of pre-existing beliefs, irrational biases, steadfast opinions.

Think about confirmation bias the next time you’re researching something: a car model, a new movie coming out, that restaurant that just opened, a potential date, or yes, even (or especially) political figures. The likelihood is that you're already playing favorites. Have you already made up your mind and are just finding a reason to feel comfortable? Or do you genuinely want to find out more?

The trick is to be open to receiving all kinds of data—the good and the bad, the anticipated and the unexpected, the beneficial and the egregious—and use that to make an informed decision. Confirmation bias may be human, but that doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge its existence and choose to be more discerning about the information we take in. It takes a bit more work, and may require us to reconsider, alter, or even abandon some of our most deeply held beliefs, but we owe it to ourselves, and I believe we’ll be better human beings for it.

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About The Author
Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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