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 our identities, 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 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. 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 will put much more emphasis on whatever confirms that negative view than that which confirms the positive. 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 stupid will place much more emphasis on the one test he failed than the five he aced. 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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Posted in Friendship, Marriage, PERSONAL, Thankfulness | 1 Comment

The Truth Will Set You Free

“If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself. That does not only mean that you suppress who you are, although it also means that. It means that so much of what you could be will never come forward. …Truth is the light in the darkness.” –Jordan Peterson

“I can’t tell him that!”
“Why not, if it’s the truth?”
I stared at my friend. He had just advised me to be honest about something I knew would hurt my husband and potentially change the nature of our relationship forever. I considered his words carefully and later that night, I told Jon the painful truth.

I’ve talked a lot recently about listening to the still, small voice inside, the one I (perhaps presumptuously) call God, and how God never seems to reveal the five year plan. Instead, He tells us the next right thing, and then the next, and then the next. As E.L. Doctorow once said, it’s like driving at night in the fog. You can only see a small path before you, yet you can make it all the way home that way. But I’m coming to understand that listening for the next right thing is only one part of the equation. There is another, equally important, thing we must do if we are to follow where God leads:

Share our truth.

If it’s true, as I am coming to believe, that God whispers direction to us one step at a time, then hearing and expressing go hand in hand, each requiring the other in order to light our way. After speaking with a friend recently, I was struck by how much time we waste worrying over the future—carefully and exhaustively weighing every option, considering every possibility, and planning every potential outcome, continually fretting over what might be. We can remain frozen this way for years as life, to use my friend’s words, “happens to us.” But if, instead, God wants to lead us one step at a time, then taking those steps require honesty about who we are, what we think, how we feel, and what’s going on in our lives. Otherwise, we remain stagnant; terrified to move for fear of how others might react; unable to follow because we’re not willing to reveal our truest selves, our deepest thoughts, our strongest desires. As I look back through the years, I can see how every moment of significant growth in my life has taken place during a time when I told those around me the truth about what was going on inside, or when someone in my life spoke a difficult truth to me and I was forced to struggle through it. In this way, our truthfulness affects not only our own lives, but also those around us, enabling all to see a bit more clearly. Though not always comfortable, I am coming to believe that the reactions, conversations, and consequences that result from honesty are the very things that make the next step clear.

After sharing the truth with my husband, our relationship DID change. And it’s been hard and scary and frustrating and uncomfortable ever since. It’s also been incredible and amazing and inspiring and wonderful. We’re forging a new path. Together.

“An ethical and evolved life entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.” —Cheryl Strayed

“What you don’t say owns you. What you hide controls you.” —Unknown

“The truth shall set you free.” —Jesus

.

Related Articles:

Phoenix

Guilt or Glory

Sanctuary

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Yodeling Children of Kentucky

Dear Neighbor,

Please excuse my children for their brilliant (and loud!) rendition of “The Yodeling Veterinarian of the Alps” last night. They apparently have no concept of time or appreciation for the fact that some people enjoy sleeping.

You, my friend, deserve a medal.

 

.

Related Articles

We are THAT family

 

Posted in Humor, The Eigh of 'em | Leave a comment

Becoming

“You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”
—The Velveteen Rabbit

My four year old sat holding a toy she wasn’t allowed to open until the next week. She caressed the edges of the box, held it up so she could see better through the plastic window, and chatted happily about all she’d do once the toy was out of its casing.
Each day my four year old repeated this ritual. She never complained or whined, just contented herself with holding the box, waiting patiently for the day designated for opening it.
“That’s so cruel!” A friend joked when I told her.
Was it?
Jon and I don’t often try to shield our children from emotional discomfort. We make them wait, we don’t practice fairness, and we encourage them to work out their own problems as often as possible. It had never occurred to me to hide the toys away, because it had never occurred to me to shield my daughter from the discomfort of waiting.

Lately, I’ve been working to accept things in my own life that cause me discomfort. Jon and I are going through changes both as a couple and as individuals, and my life is currently full of questions and situations that almost daily bring up feelings of panic, fear, sadness, anger, and frustration. All my life, I’ve sought to avoid anything that might cause these “negative” emotions, but now, rather than seek to alleviate them, I’m trying to sit with them. Hold them. Let them touch me, then let them pass. They always do, eventually, and generally teach me something along the way.
I think the Skin Horse was right. “Becoming” doesn’t happen often to those who break easily or must be carefully kept. We have to be willing to go to a place where we allow ourselves to be hurt, afraid, sad, even broken, if need be. We have to be willing to enter that place with hearts wide-open, and embrace whatever is waiting for us there.

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse. “By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Posted in Anxiety, Fear, Parenting, Raising Children Discipline/Discipleship | Leave a comment

Lost

“Jon… don’t fuss at me… I think I’ve lost the debit card.”

My husband is a patient man. When I forgot my camera battery before a trip to Florida, he drove thirty minutes out of his way to bring it to me. When I recently (ok, yesterday) came home from the grocery without most of the staple items we always buy (toilet paper, dish liquid, shampoo, to name a few) he went out the next day to get them. When I decided to make cheese for friends and got halfway through the process before realizing I didn’t have a candy thermometer, he drove 20 minutes to our local Amish store to purchase one and when I realized I also needed kitchen gloves, he took a drive in the opposite direction to find them. He rarely gets mad and has an extraordinary ability to take everything in stride. But if there’s one thing he’s very, very particular about, it’s our finances and everything associated with them. I knew he was not happy.
“Are you kidding me? How the hell did you manage to lose the debit card?”
“I don’t know!”
“Are you sure you used it?”
“I’m positive. I used it at the gas station, and was going to use it at the vet, but it wasn’t in my wallet. I’m in the parking lot now, and I’ve searched everywhere. It’s not here.”
“I can’t believe this.”
I wondered idly how he could possibly “not believe this,” considering the past seventeen years as my husband, but thought it unwise to say so aloud.
“Hang on, I’m getting another call.”
The kids and I continued searching as I waited for him to get back with me.
“Rina, that was the vet. They said they have your card.”
“Oh, thank God! I’ll call you right back.”
I ran in, thankful for the mix up. I must have used the debit card, after all, and wished I hadn’t called my husband so quickly. I knew he’d be irritated for the rest of the day, even though the card had been found, and I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that it could have been worse. The receptionist handed me the card, and my heart sank.
I made my way back to the car and dragged the phone to my ear. “Jon… they had the credit card. The debit card is still missing.”

Posted in Humor, Marriage | Leave a comment

Truth of Beauty

Today I stepped on the scale for the first time in several weeks and discovered I’ve met my biggest weight loss goal, so far: one hundred pounds lost.

I’m elated about this, of course, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have mixed feelings about my body after losing so much weight. A little over a year ago, I wrote an article about how I’ve learned to accept my body, even celebrate it just a little. But I’ve recently come to see this just isn’t true. Or maybe it was true, when I wore shapeless clothing and my body was seen only by the man who’d met me in my early twenties and bore witness to the weight fluctuations, the stretch marks, the slow downward descent of my breasts and outward protrusion of my stomach. Maybe it was true before I started losing weight more rapidly, which has led to loose skin and an odd feeling of deflation. Or maybe it was never true at all, and I wrote that post more from wishful thinking than honesty. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever come to terms with my body. I wonder if I’ll ever stand before someone “naked and unashamed.”

Months ago, I read the story of Lucy Grealy, a cancer survivor who killed herself at age 39 after years struggling to accept herself following over 20 unsuccessful reconstructive surgeries to repair radiation damages to her jaw. As I read her story, both through the eyes of her best friend, Ann Patchett, in the book Truth and Beauty then through her own retelling in Autobiography of a Face, I was struck by a deep and unexpected sorrow. One night as I looked down at my body, I found myself sobbing in my husband’s arms: “I’m sorry! I’m just so sorry!” I said this over and over in my mind, to an imaginary little-girl Lucy. And as I lay there with my husband, crying for Lucy, I realized I was crying for myself as well.

I have spent a lifetime searching for identity in my physical appearance, never quite measuring up, hiding myself from view. Where Lucy tried to hide her face, I tried to hide my hips and thighs, stomach and breasts. Where Lucy was teased about her face, I was criticized about my body. Where Lucy adopted the idea she could never be loved, I adopted the idea I could only be loved if I looked a certain way. And as I realized the tragedy of Lucy’s upbringing, I understood the tragedy of all that had affected me in a similar way, (to an obviously lesser degree.) Society had given us both not just an impossible standard, but a false one.

Lucy writes, of the literary classics she was reading at the time:

“They presented a version of the world in which honor and virtue and dedication to the truth counted. The stories comforted me, though it didn’t escape my attention that these qualities were ascribed primarily to men. The women might be virtuous as well, but their physical beauty was crucial to the story.”

Society has given women a standard most of us have adopted without question: whatever other virtues we may have, physical beauty is one of the most – if not THE most – important. Show me the heroin of the book, tv show, or movie, who is not also beautiful and I will show you the exception to the rule. There is very little place in the media for bodies that are lumpy, bumpy, big, or disproportionate and where they do show up, they’re typically featured as awkward, obnoxious, slovenly, or evil. Mama June. Roseanne. Ursula. Where are the heroins with sagging breasts and pouchy stomachs? Where are the flabby arms and cellulite? We are given as a standard something most women will never be able to achieve and grow up in a world that tells us in order to be virtuous we must also be beautiful according to that standard. Different is considered deficient. This is heartbreaking.

But it’s not the end of the story. At least, it doesn’t have to be. I’m coming to understand that although I can’t fight the world’s definition of beauty, or sit around hoping others will value my physical appearance, I can choose to value myself. Today, I ask myself the question: is it possible to decide—for myself—what true beauty is to me? Is it possible to accept this body, regardless of whether anyone else ever does?

As a friend of mine once said, perception is affected by focus and focus is affected by choice. In the United States, the source of the media’s idea of beauty isn’t true beauty—which includes so much more than legs and butt and boobs—it’s business. Behind every sexy advertisement is an old man sitting in a yacht and behind every centerfold image is a woman struggling to pay her bills. The act of being aware of this – of paying attention to this truth – has the power to change things. Behold the great and powerful Oz…

Behold the man behind the curtain.

This game, like so many others, is rigged against us, and if we want to win we must step away and find another game to play. We can’t change the world’s definition of beauty, but we can change our own.

“Every stretch mark, age spot, dimple, and stray hair I’ve picked up along the way tells a story. It might not be the story I would have liked to tell, of hours at the gym, consistent healthy eating, or regular spa treatments (ha!) But it tells the story of a woman, a family, and a little farm. It tells the story of eight beautiful, healthy children and a life lived, to the best of my ability, walking with God. It’s my story. And I wouldn’t change that for the world.”

I wrote these words a year ago. Can I believe them?

Posted in Perfectionism, PERSONAL | 1 Comment

Phoenix

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you, step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”
– Joseph Campbell

“Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey. There are no general principles for this art of being. Yet the signature of this unique journey is inscribed deeply in each soul. If you attend to yourself and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life. The senses are generous pathways that can bring you home.”
– John O’Donohue

“Narrow is the road that leads to life.”
—Jesus

 

Christianity gave me an excellent script by which to live my life, an excellent map to follow. It told me if I did A and B and C, and if I walked THIS road instead of THAT one, I would be following the footsteps of millions of others who had reached the destination and could ensure my safety. It gave me stability, predictability, an idea of what the future would hold and, to a certain extent, a feeling of control over my life and lack of vulnerability. For years, I followed that map as best I could, doing everything the church told me I ought. Until things fell apart.

When things fell apart, I let go of everything the church, my society, and the world around me had ever taught me about who I ought to be and what I ought to think and determined to travel (to the best of my ability) my own path, doing everything I could to listen to that still, small voice inside, the voice I call (for lack of a better word) My Soul. I have a feeling it could also be called Holy Spirit. Too often, over the years, I’d ignored this voice in an effort to be “right” according to the opinions of those around me. Now, I stopped listening to the opinions of others. Stopped asking for permission. Stopped explaining myself. I started saying “no” more often and started saying “yes” more often. I did the next thing I felt led to do, and then the next, and then the next. Then one day, I ended up in a place I never thought I’d go, a place the church told me God would never lead.

During this time, I struggled not only to understand my experience, but to figure out the “right” thing to do. Finding myself in a place I never thought I’d be, everything seemed too big, too complicated. I couldn’t possibly take THIS one step at a time. I had responsibilities, obligations. Somehow, I had to come up with a plan, find some path to follow, figure out the destination. I spent a miserable few months trying to do just that, until a friend convinced me to do something that, by all accounts, seemed exactly the “right” thing to do. So I did that “right” thing… and everything grew worse. Much worse. Inside, I felt myself screaming and one day I stopped and listened. Really listened. Tears rolled down my face as I realized, she’s been screaming for years.

Suddenly, I knew I couldn’t ignore that screaming voice anymore. I knew I had to stop looking for the destination and start once more to listen to the voice whispering the next right step. Not the big picture, not the five year plan, just the next right step, trusting it to “bring me home.”

I am coming to believe that the destination is not mine to know. I am coming to believe I can only ever know the next right thing, and then the next, one right thing at a time. Not the next right thing for my husband, or my friends, or even my children, but the next right thing for myself. Step by step, day by day, moment by moment. God, The Universe, My Soul, The Holy Spirit, whatever I want to call It, this Higher Power knows about the people in my life and I am coming to believe that by doing the next right thing for me, I am also doing the next right thing for them.

I think I am beginning to understand what Joseph Campbell and John O’Donohue and (dare I say it?) Jesus meant when they spoke of the path as narrow and unseen. Where religion gives a map, The Spirit gives the next step, and only the next step. Should I choose to take it, there will be no one on the other side to cheer me, no one to tell me it’s all going to be okay. Religion gives a picture of the journey. The Spirit extends an empty canvas. And that is terrifying.

I once heard someone say the Universe is always trying to push us toward the direction of our own growth. If this is true, what is happening to me now makes sense in a way few things ever have. It’s as if a match has been lit to a kindling gathered to destroy the straw house religion and popular opinion had me build. My husband recently said he feels I’m not the same person I was when we got married. He’s right, I’m not. I am Phoenix, rising from the ashes.

.

Related Articles:

Faith Unraveled

Perfect Love

Posted in Criticism, Faith, Healing, Miscellaneous, Perfectionism, Victory Journal | 3 Comments