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Family Pet Animal Care - The Curse of Confirmation Bias


Family Pet Animal Care 
The Curse of Confirmation Bias

by Dr. Michael Trapani

The act of thinking: To ponder , think about, contemplate, consider, review, reflect upon, mull over, deliberate, cogitate, turn over in one’s mind. It’s something that an oddball minority of us do occasionally. Our purpose is to understand both ourselves and the wider world around us so that we can reach our most reliable conclusions, achieve our greatest possible understanding, and make our least number of mistakes. Our deliberations allow us to parse truth from fiction, distinguish fact from fantasy, and perceive reality from within the ever-present haze of emotion and conflicting information.

So it is important for us to think about the process of thinking and how we think: We need to be aware of how we make cognitive errors that lead us into false conclusions. Why? Because no one wants to believe something that is factually incorrect. There can be an immense gap between that which we believe and that which is actually true. I may believe that I have plenty of gas, but I’ll still be stranded on the side of the road when my belief is factually incorrect.

One of the greatest obstacles to clear thinking is confirmation bias. That is, the tendency of all human beings to give greatest credence to information that confirms what we already believe. We’re all guilty of this, but it’s a tendency that interferes with our ability to discern the facts necessary to make our best decisions. Confirmation bias is a dangerous pitfall that we all need to avoid.

It starts with bias in our search for information. The typical Google search is a perfect example: We type a term into our search engine and obtain three million hits. We can’t read them all, so we choose those we like best. Very often, we choose the results that most closely match what we already believe. This very human tendency rewards us with the comforting confirmation that we are correct in our cherished personal belief.

But wouldn’t we be better off if we examined the search results that differ from what we already believe? These are the results that offer new information or provide an alternative viewpoint for our consideration. We don’t have to accept every new viewpoint, but shouldn’t we expand our horizons? The point of doing an information search is to learn something new. Right?

Biased interpretation is another aspect of confirmation bias. Even when two individuals have the same information, they often interpret it in a biased way. When presented with conflicting pieces of evidence that confirm or are contrary to our previously held beliefs, almost all of us will give credence to details that support our viewpoint and disregard those with which we disagree. We view evidence supporting our pre-existing view as more reliable than evidence that contradicts us. We readily accept even sloppy evidence that confirms our opinions, and set higher standards for information with which we disagree. This is a pitfall of human thinking that a clear minded person works to avoid.

Biased memory is yet another aspect of confirmation bias. Even when people obtain and consider information in a neutral manner, they will often selectively remember it in ways that reinforce their expectations and opinions. All of us have experienced selective recall in dealing with others. It is our nature to be guilty of this vice ourselves.

In the practice of veterinary medicine it is crucial that I avoid errors due to confirmation bias. Sometimes, my emotional attachment to a particular client or patient pushes me towards wishful thinking, making it far too easy for me to believe something simply because I hope that it is true. That kind of logic is not helpful or effective. 

I get my best results when I see clearly though the haze of incomplete and conflicting information encountered in just about every case. No two patients are alike and the same condition frequently presents in different ways. Experience has taught that I need to remain skeptical, even about the most basic and seemingly reliable of conclusions. I have no facts, just theories and opinions - and despite my best efforts, I have been wrong in the past. I must maintain constant vigilance to avoid being wrong in the future.

It’s not just medicine! Confirmation bias stalks us all and effects our self-esteem, our relationships with loved ones, and every aspect of our lives. Don’t get stuck on the cognitive roadside! Know thy enemy: know thyself!