Biases, part 1

It's all in the brain

The world is full of biases. Some of my favorites are cognitive, which frequently result in people (myself included) misinterpreting information, or making poor/wrong decisions, when they believe they are being rational and logical.

Being aware of these common biases is very useful, both for finding weakness in arguments you make, as well as in those of your "opponents".

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is one that seems to be very common1: the act of seeking or interpreting evidence to confirm a belief you already have; ignoring or not looking for evidence which would counter it.

A recent example pulled from Facebook is a statement such as this (and I don't mean to make it personal, it's just a good example):

Why do so many people get the words lose and loose mixed up? Is it a generation thing, because it only started happening visibly in the last few years. Maybe an Internet-speak issue? Curious...

Given that there is no hard evidence (that I am aware of) that this statement is true, it seems much more likely that confirmation bias is at play, playing out something like this:

  • Misuse of lose & loose is fairly obvious to someone who knows their correct usage; whilst their correct usage is almost unnoticeable. So there is a built in bias to overestimate incorrect usage.
  • Almost as soon as the hypothesis is made, the incorrect usage will be even more noticeable, as it will be conscious in your mind (a similar effect to learning a new word, and suddenly notice it being used everywhere). Correct usage will still go unnoticed.
  • Anger ensues at the "kids these days", making said infractions even more noticeable.
  • And so on...

How to deal with it

I have found that simply knowing that confirmation bias is a thing, with a name, has helped me identify when I, or others, are falling prey to it.

Examples like the above are pretty harmless, but I see/suffer from it all the time in the workplace: people collecting more and more "proof" to support their hypothesis, whilst ignoring, downplaying, or not even looking for information that would disagree with it.

Cognitive biases are one place where a little meta-thought (thinking about the way you are thinking) can go a long way. Whenever you are trying to confirm a theory, try and look for counter-examples, as well as supporting evidence. Many a mathematician would tell you it's a powerful technique.


1The irony of this statement should be clear upon finishing this post.