Confirmation Bias

If you haven’t noticed, politics is funny.

Two well-meaning, intelligent, motivated, and persuasive people look at exactly the same set of facts – and come to two seemingly opposite conclusions. How can that be??  After all, a fact is a fact.

We don’t have to look far for examples of this in our own lives.  For instance, we see smoking as the manifestation of addiction, others around us see it as a dirty, selfish behavior.  How many times has something like this happened to you?:

          Patient says:      “I quit when I was 70.”

          You hear:             “I couldn’t quit until I was 70.”

          Others hear:       “I just up and quit when I was 70.”

Two very different points of view, one set of objective facts.

Sometimes, this phenomenon is due to something called confirmation bias.  From Wikipedia:

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias or myside bias) is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses.  People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.  [People] tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.

Confirmation bias contributes to overconfidence in personal beliefs, and can actually maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence.   This happens to us every time we try to convince legislators of our position.  If we’re not careful about our approach, we run the risk of convincing people to “dig in” further.  One particularly relevant example of an ongoing “debate” that is wracked by confirmation bias is the current discussion surrounding the potential adverse effects of varenicline.  Read this great summary  of the events leading up to our current, confusing, state of affairs, and see if you can identify the places where confirmation bias is likely to have affected people’s positions.

Don’t let anyone tell you confirmation bias isn’t dangerous – there are lots of examples of bad decisions made as a result.  In non-profits, in business, in medicine, even in the military.

Perhaps more importantly, don’t let anyone tell you that there’s nothing you can do about confirmation bias when speaking to decision makers.  (Hey!  Did you see that?? – This assumption itself is an example of confirmation bias!)

So the question remains: What can we do about it?

Part 1 of the answer is to be aware that confirmation bias exists, that we all have this bias, and that we have to actively work to overcome it when speaking with someone of an opposing point of view.

  • If you read tobacco news and journals, don’t stop with the opinions that match your own.  Add one or two that come from a different perspective.  Read the E-cigarette blog, or the smokers’ rights web-site.  Ask yourself what’s important to understand about the opposing point of view.  How can you merge the opposing narrative seamlessly into your own talking points.
  • Validate the opposing point of view.  Remember that just because they disagree with us, doesn’t make them evil.  They have reasons to think the way they do.  Show that you understand how / why a reasonable person could have come to that conclusion.  Whatever you do, don’t be patronizing or dismissive.
  • Find a way to show them directly how meeting your goals will lead to meeting their goals.  This one’s not so easy.  Remember, it’s important to be able to show DIRECT connections between goals. Not so much indirect connections, like “reducing smoking will save the state money in the long run.”  More like “You’re correct Senator, tobacco treatment services should be a self-sustaining part of the healthcare system.  Our funds have gone directly into designing programs to further several important integration goals.”

Where are our biggest confirmation bias “threats”?  How might we alter our tactics in order to overcome them?  We will fully occupy tobacco control when we get good at understanding how decisions that affect us are made around us.

Can you think of other examples of how we might get this done?  Write ’em down and pass ’em around.


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