Confirmation bias – how our thoughts shape our reality and how we can use this to create a better life

Confirmation Bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, or remember information in a way that confirms what we already believe or think.

We got to see an excellent example of confirmation bias last week in regards to the Covington Catholic High school students. As more information came out, people either actively ignored the additional footage, or scrambled to find new evidence to support the opinions they’d originally formed. Eventually, most of us were forced to admit we’d been wrong about our assumptions, at least to some degree, although getting there was an uphill climb.

This is because confirmation bias leads us to ignore facts that are contrary to what we already believe, and actively search out information that confirms our opinions. It affects us both in how we seek out information (watching only liberal/conservative news stations, for instance) and also how we process otherwise neutral information (a smile becomes a smirk, or vice versa.)

It’s a scary thought. But there’s something even more frightening…

We all do it, we’ve always done it, and we will always do it.

The brain’s primary goal is self-protection, both to the physical and physiological self. When opposing facts challenge the identities we have either consciously or subconsciously adopted about ourselves, our brains automatically perceive them as a threat and act accordingly. This takes place mostly on a subconscious level and causes us to put much more emphasis on things which work to prove our existing beliefs (EVEN if those beliefs are wrong or unhealthy) than those which contradict them. It can be likened to a bank where affirmations represent deposits and contradictions represent withdraws. Unfortunately where confirmation bias is concerned, everything that contradicts the view we already have is worth one coin and everything which confirms it is worth five. (This is why it takes tremendous effort to change our views once they’re established, and why most of us never seek to challenge our own opinions.)

I’ve recently come to realize that I struggle with a negative confirmation bias when it comes to relationships. Somewhere along the path of my life, I adopted the belief that I had to earn love and that love could easily be lost. Unfortunately, mixed with this idea was also the belief that I was never/would never be good enough, and so these traits worked in tandem to make me constantly feel unloved and unlovable. This is a huge problem, because when we look at confirmation bias in the context of human emotion, the person who has a negative view about themselves or struggles with the fear of failure will put much more emphasis on whatever confirms these views than that which confirm the opposite. So a person who feels like no one cares about her will place much more importance on the two times a friend didn’t call back than on the ten times that same friend did, and a person who feels like he’s a failure will place much more emphasis on the one time he messed up than the five times he got it right. We get tuned in to the emotions that support our existing view, and will constantly find reasons to justify those thoughts and make them true… even if it means interpreting neutral circumstances as negative.

That person didn’t smile at me, she must not like me.
My friend didn’t return my call, she must be mad at me.
My husband came home from work late, he must be having an affair.

One can imagine the kinds of problems this can cause in relationships if every negative action gets magnified, and every positive action is downplayed or (if the bias is severe enough) ignored altogether. In fact, researchers have found that couples in unhappy marriages tend to underestimate the number of positive interactions they have with their spouse by 50%!

But the good news is that confirmation bias works in the opposite direction as well, and by becoming aware of it and directing our thoughts, we can actually USE our bias to bring more positivity into our lives. In my own life, I’ve done this primarily in three ways:

1. Practicing Gratitude

It’s been said that what we pay attention to grows, and I recently learned that the reason for this has to do with a part of our brain called the reticular activating system. The RAS’s job is to filter into our awareness the things we’re looking for, and out of our awareness the things we’re not looking for (this is why, when we become interested in something new, we often see things relating to it everywhere we go.) By consciously focusing on the things we want more of in our lives, we can actually train our RAS and it is theorized that when we do this, our RAS will reveal the people, information, and opportunities that will work to help us achieve those things. (This has also been called the “law of attraction.”) If this is true, and we place conscious focus on the positive, our RAS will actually help us to CREATE more positive situations in our life. It makes sense, doesn’t it? As we do more to search out and express our gratitude for the positive interactions we have with others, the more positive interactions we’ll create (this has also been called “the law of reciprocity,” “karma,” and simply “what goes around comes around.”) And it all begins in our thoughts.
Personally, I’ve begun keeping a gratitude journal. Throughout the day, I try to be on the lookout for things to write in my journal, which helps me put more emphasis on the positive than on the negative. According to the law of attraction, this helps me not only acknowledge but also create more positivity in my life.

2. Remember the Positive

Focusing on the positive is much easier when there are lots of good things happening, but there are days when it seems like every interaction I have is awful from start to finish. When this happens, it’s amazing how quickly I can mentally list hundreds of things wrong with my loved ones. Suddenly I can remember every transgression since 1998 and I’m wondering why I’ve put up with this person for a single day, let alone years. When this happens, I try to set aside my feelings, even just for a moment, and think of as many good qualities about them as I can, and reflect on the good interactions I’ve had with them over the months/years. I’ve set up separate folders in my gratitude journal where I record some of these positive interactions, just so I can read through them when I’m flooded with negative thoughts. This helps me keep things in perspective when I start feeling like things will “never” get better, or will “always” be this way, and sometimes even changes my outlook completely so that what seemed to be an insurmountable problem an hour ago becomes a non-issue.

3. Tell A Different Story

Whenever I feel a negative emotion or find myself judging others, I try to take a few moments to identify exactly where my feelings/opinions are coming from and what my judgment is made of. Once I know this, I can take steps to work through it and determine how to best deal with it. In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown gives four steps that are helpful in this process, which I’ve expounded on, below. Personally, the two steps that have helped me most when it comes to personal relationships are:

A. Identifying the story I’m telling myself (ie. “My friend didn’t call back, she must be mad at me”) and
B. Telling myself a completely new story (ie. “Someone must have dropped by” or “her phone must have died” or “her son must have peed in the pie and she had to make it all over again.” (True story—happened to my grandmother!)

The story I make up really doesn’t really matter. I figure if I don’t actually KNOW why my friend didn’t call, I might as well make up a good reason on her behalf. This is often an effective tactic to help me see there are a myriad of other possibilities which have nothing at all to do with me. It also helps me to interrupt the flow of negative thoughts and retrain my mind to look for the positive side of those interactions.

If, however, I’m dealing with information too complex or too important to deal with in a simple story,  or if I simply can’t let go of my hurt feelings regarding a certain situation, Brene Brown gives a series of questions that help me further understand my emotions and come to correct conclusions/solutions:

A. What story am I telling myself, or am I being told?

As mentioned previously, we all tell ourselves stories about the events which take place in our lives. Identifying the story we’re telling helps us to see what, exactly, is making us feel what we feel. For instance, if I walk into a room and my friends suddenly grow quiet, I might be telling myself they were talking bad about me and got quiet because they don’t want me to hear.

B. What more do I need to learn?

In this step, we ask two important questions that help us better understand what our stories are made of:
A. What do I know objectively?
B. What assumptions am I making?
For instance, all I know objectively regarding my friends is that they were talking and fell silent when I walked in. The assumption I’m making is that they were talking about me.

C. What more do I need to learn and understand?

In this step, we ask two questions that help us discover how to collect the information we need to make a more clear judgment:
A. What additional information do I need?
B. What questions can I ask, that would help me understand and/or find the truth?
An easy solution for the assumption that my friends were talking bad about me would be to simply ask. I often revisit my conversations with loved ones to ask for clarification or additional information. It’s important in that situation to give the other person the benefit of the doubt and believe the best rather than accuse them of something hurtful. One of my favorite methods of dealing with a conversation like this is to say: “when you said (or did) this, I interpreted it to mean this, is that really how you meant it?” This isn’t always an easy thing to do when feelings are on the line (I recently accused a loved one of something and it was only after she expressed how badly I’d hurt her feelings with my accusation that I realized what I’d done.) As with everything, it’s a progress.

D. What more do I need to know about ME?

Here we seek to understand where our negative reaction to the situation came from, by asking two last questions:
A. What is under my response
B. What part did I play?
Perhaps my negative response has to do with a hurtful situation from the past that left me sensitive to friends talking behind my back. Or perhaps I, myself, often talk about people this way which makes me assume others are doing the same. Or perhaps my friends were talking behind my back, and it’s because I’d been a hateful jerk the week before and they were trying to figure out how to approach me about it. Here we take an honest look at ourselves to determine why we react the way we do, and what part, if any, we had to play in what happened.

I’ve employed these questions in my own life many times (though admittedly not often enough) and they’ve often helped me see things from a new perspective. Interestingly enough, this practice has led to some pretty incredible things. About a year ago, I looked through one of my old journals and was horrified to see the fear and insecurity which ran across every page—fears I look back on now and can hardly believe I once felt. I feel much more freedom in my interactions with people, and much more secure in my relationships. I still have a long way to go, but I’m getting there.

And that’s something else to be thankful for.

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4 Responses to Confirmation bias – how our thoughts shape our reality and how we can use this to create a better life

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