Evade the Trap of Confirmation Bias

Posted on April 30, 2024

Even when they are not driven by identity politics, people’s political beliefs often run contrary to logic or evidence. In fact, psychology tells us, there are many cognitive biases that skew human reasoning.

“Confirmation bias,” one of the oldest-known and best-proven cognitive biases, is particularly important to understand in political persuasion. This is when people seek out information that conforms to what they already believe or want to believe, while—inside their minds—ignore or refute information that disproves those assumptions. It is a selective use of evidence through which people reinforce to themselves whatever they want to believe.

If people believe that violent crime keeps increasing, they will retain information about recent crimes and disbelieve or ignore the fact that crime rates have declined for decades. If individuals think the Earth is thousands, instead of billions, of years old, they will not believe the truth even when shown fossils in a museum. For that matter, if people are convinced that Friday the 13th is unlucky, they will pay attention and remember the times bad things happened on this date but will fail to remember all the Friday the 13ths when no misfortune occurred.

In short, when faced with facts that contradict strongly felt beliefs, people will almost always reject the facts and hold on to their beliefs.

Confirmation bias is crucial because, when it comes to politics, all of us carry in our heads a long list of preexisting beliefs, stereotypes and biases. So, if you present evidence or use language that seems to challenge your listeners’ key beliefs, they will stop listening. If they think you are saying “you’re wrong,” a switch clicks in their brains turning off rational consideration and turning on negative emotions.

Why do people’s brains work that way?

Human brains have two main memory systems, one that reacts instantaneously, reflexively and emotionally and another that is deliberate, controls abstract thinking, and stores memories such as facts and events. This second system is the one that’s rational and reflective.

Because the first “fight or flight” system operates in milliseconds, its reactions can override or redirect slower reasoning. So, if your listener’s reflexive system determines that you are attacking an important belief, it will divert thinking away from the rational mechanisms in the brain to emotional ones. Simultaneously, the listener’s mind will cherry-pick memories to reinforce the preexisting belief that seems to be under attack.

Let us imagine you are discussing voter fraud with a neighbor who believes it’s a problem and you say, “There is no evidence of any significant voter fraud,” which is unquestionably true. His brain will perceive your words as an attack, he will feel a strongly negative emotional reaction, he will then remember and focus on the very real-to-him fake news that supports his belief in voter fraud, and you will have no chance to persuade him of anything. Your effort at persuasion has failed.

As political activists, we wish that we could reason with people and have calm, cool, dispassionate discussions about public policy. But instead, we tend to trigger in our listeners a negative emotional response, reminding them of memories that reinforce those negative emotions. We are arguing with ghosts from our listeners’ pasts—and losing.

Clinical psychologist Drew Westen of Emory University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine what was going on in the brains of political partisans. After engaging test subjects with a series of openly contradictory statements from their own favored candidates, the fMRIs—not too surprisingly—showed they had not engaged the logical parts of their brains. They had engaged their emotions instead. And then, after rationalizing away legitimate attacks on their favored candidates, the brain’s pleasure center released the neurotransmitter dopamine. As Westen explained in his book The Political Brain:

Once partisans had found a way to reason to false conclusions, not only did neural circuits involved in negative emotions turn off, but circuits involved in positive emotions turned on. The partisan brain didn’t seem satisfied in just feeling better. It worked overtime to feel good, activating reward circuits that give partisans a jolt of positive reinforcement for their biased reasoning. These reward circuits overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their “fix,” giving new meaning to the term political junkie.

This means that when you attack preexisting beliefs, not only are your arguments rejected, but you are also helping to emotionally reward partisans for their stubbornness, deepening their attachment to false ideas.

The leaders the MAGA movement, or at least their funders, understand this. They know that their supporters are not searching for truth, so the truth really doesn’t matter. MAGA supporters are, instead, consciously or unconsciously, seeking out information that conforms to their preexisting beliefs. That’s why they watch Fox News! They believe what they want to because it quite literally feels bad to admit one is wrong and feels good to assert one is right.

In sum, there are tremendous barriers in the path of persuasion. How do we work around those obstacles? (Read the next IdeaLog!)