Sources Unknown: Confirmation Bias

Submitted by Anonymous on Sat, 02/11/2017 - 11:11 AM

What is confirmation bias?

First, watch the following video*:

If it took you longer than two minutes or so to figure it out, think about why that might be. The probable answer? Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to accept (and remember) evidence that supports our existing beliefs while ignoring information with which we disagree. From a media perspective, this can take the form of:

  • Only reading or watching media that you agree with.
  • Making an effort to fact-check or disprove information you don’t agree with, but accepting information that supports your beliefs at face value.
  • Consuming media from multiple viewpoints, but only remembering the pieces with which you agree.

Ted 'Theodore' Logan is shocked at the words 'What if recognizing confirmation bias just feeds our confirmation bias of our assumption that we are unbiased. Ted appears as if he is about to say, 'Whoa!'
Source: Quick Meme

The Banana Example

A sheepish-looking minion toy holds a peeled banana.

Let's say you love to eat bananas. While researching the health benefits of bananas, the first two results you see in Google are titled "10 Healthy Superfoods" and "Busting the Banana Myth". You read the first article, which explains why bananas are good for you, and you use it as justification for eating more bananas. You can tell the second article is going to argue against eating bananas, so you don’t read it. Or, you read it and promptly discredit it. Either way, you've just experienced confirmation bias!

Comic strip of person doing research. The person says, 'I've heard rhetoric from both sides...time to do my own research on the real truth,' and the next section of the strip is a Google search result that says, 'Literally the first link that agrees with what you already believe,' and the next screenshot, the person is wearing sunglasses and confidently says, 'jackpot'.
Source: Kris Straub

Let’s recap: The first article, which called bananas a superfood, supported your existing belief that bananas are good for you. The second article presented contradictory information. Therefore, you clung to the information in the first article, which confirmed your positive bias for bananas, and ignored the second article. This is confirmation bias in action.

How can you avoid confirmation bias?

1. Expand your media diet. (Or get out of your bubble.)

A shining, rainbow bubble floats through a park, blissfully unaware of its surroundings.
Source: Serge Melki

Have you heard of an "echo chamber"? Or perhaps been told to get out of your "bubble"? The presidential campaign and election in 2016 was widely discussed and dissected on social media, and it was also very divisive. How many people do you know who deleted friends on Facebook or unfollowed people on Twitter because they disagreed with their posts? How many people did you remove from your own social media feeds?

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t feel empowered to sever social media ties, but you should be aware of how these selective feeds are informing and shaping your personal beliefs. If you only follow people with whom you tend to agree, you are not challenging your thinking, and you probably aren’t learning much more than what you would have found out on your own by pursuing your own interests.

The solution? Expand your media diet! An equal balance isn’t necessary; you don’t need to watch an hour of right-leaning news for every hour of left-leaning news or to read a liberal magazine from cover to cover if your favorite news magazine is conservative (we know consuming media takes time!). There are smaller steps you can take to explore outside your echo chamber.

The Politician Example

Here's one way to get out of your social media bubble: If you follow your favorite politicians on Twitter, try following a politician or two with whom you typically disagree. If you subscribe to a daily news briefing email, try subscribing to a second digest with a different perspective. If you like to watch cable news in the evenings, try a different channel once a week.

You may find that listening to the other side doesn’t change your mind, but by entering with an open mind and considering another perspective, at least you’ll have a better understanding of why you hold a particular belief.

2. Use primary sources.

The media is often accused of being biased because of the way they frame the news. This can mean using certain quotes from a speech or press conference while ignoring others, only showing the most inflammatory (or tamest) 10 seconds of a 5-minute video, or showing a statistic in raw numbers rather than percentages to portray information in a more positive or negative light. (Check out our post on data literacy for more information on this!)

To help avoid implicit or explicit biases presented in the news, seek out primary sources as often as possible. A primary source is an original, first-hand account or document, which can take many forms. Instead of listening to a podcast about a news conference, watch an (unedited) video of the news conference to understand the context of each quote. Instead of reading an article about a person, read an interview transcript, personal letter or journal entry. Instead of seeing what politicians say about their voting record on their websites or social media, check the actual voting records from Congress.

Painting of Joseph Ducreux, a french noble and portrait painter from French Revolution times, wearing a white wig, hat and clothes with a cane pointing at us with meme text superimosed that says, 'When your diary gets used as the primary source.'
Source: Meme Crunch

When searching for primary sources, also make an effort to find diverse sources. This goes hand-in-hand with expanding your media diet. Not only is it important to read and watch news from different organizations, but it is valuable to note the individual sources in each story. Although race and ethnicity are important identifiers, diversity is not limited to these two attributes. Also consider socioeconomic class, gender, religion/creed, race, nationality, sexuality, immigration status and marital/parental status. Are the sources all around the same age? Do they have the same educational background or occupation, or do they work in the same industry?

Remember that people with different backgrounds likely have different experiences regarding the same issue, which can inform their beliefs and give you another perspective to consider and evaluate. Also consider whether the information is coming from a politician, a government spokesperson, a think tank representative, a lobbyist, an "expert in their field" (if so, what qualifications do they have?), a public relations professional, a service member, a local resident, etc. In any case, consider how the source’s background might inform their commentary or conclusions, and use that information to decide how credible you find the source.

3. Check the information against more than one source.

Many of us assume our favorite news channels, newspapers, and websites check their facts before they post information. However, we know this is not always the case, and even if an organization does fact-check, mistakes happen.

Comic of two stick figures. One figure is standing at a computer and says, 'Did you fact check this before reposting it?', then the other figure says, 'I don't need to. It agrees with my preconceived views and biases so it must be true!'
Source: The Logic of Science

Check our fact-checking post for more detailed information. and are two good websites to get you started.

*We found this video through Facing History’s Facing Ferguson: News Literacy in a Digital Age resource library. It contains an entire lesson on Confirmation and Other Biases if you want to learn more about this topic.

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