Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Confirmation Bias

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Confirmation bias is a maladaptive thinking pattern where an isolated event serves as proof of a global belief. Instances that challenge the truth of this biased belief are ignored or minimized. Let’s consider Charles. Charles, like many Americans, believes that the French are assholes. He has never visited the country or interacted with any of its citizens but has heard plenty of stories. Charles wins a sweepstakes that will send him and his wife on an all expense paid trip to Paris.

With no small trepidation Charles decides he cannot pass up the opportunity and goes. They grab a taxi from the airport, and Pierre the taxi driver, unbeknownst to them, has had a terrible week. His children are sick, he is struggling to keep his marriage together, and is in real danger of losing his job because he has shown up late to a few shifts. Pierre is a little short with Charles and his wife because they are not sure of the address where they are staying. He grumbles under his breath, drives a bit erratically, and is generally unfriendly during the ride. As they unpack their bags from the back of the cab and head towards the hotel Charles leans over to his wife and whispers “You see? The French are total assholes.”

Now let’s take the case of Susan. Susan grew up next door to a French family who moved to the United States when she was young. As a child she played with their daughter Ana all the time because they were about the same age. Their friendship blossomed and they remain fast friends to this day. Susan has never met a French person outside of her encounters with Ana’s family, yet has a very favorable opinion of the French because of her childhood. She remembers joyful dinner parties with Ana’s parents jovially sitting around the table drinking wine and laughing. She is somewhat besotted with what she believes is the French way of life. Susan decides to take a trip to Paris to finally see it for herself. And low and behold, she also finds herself riding in a cab with Pierre the taxi driver.

Pierre is every bit as standoffish and moody as he was during the other ride, because it is the same day, but Susan perceives his behavior in a completely different way. It doesn’t sync up with her preconceived notions about the French and she decides to inquire about what’s wrong. Pierre opens up and tells her about all the problems he has been having at home, and apologizes for his somewhat rude behavior. She reaches her destination, and as she is leaving the cab she thinks to herself “Poor man. I hope things start going better for him.”

This is confirmation bias and as you can see it works both ways. If you have a very favorable impression about a person or culture it will take a great deal of evidence to the contrary to make you change it. If your opinion is negative then one negative event will help reinforce that negative viewpoint, and positive traits will be ignored or minimized.

You can probably see the value in critically examining your own biases about people, cultures, and human interactions. The world tends to open up to us and becomes much richer when we can judge each encounter on its own merit rather than as a statistical proof of something we already believe.