Confirmation bias is one of my favorite topics, in work and in life. We all tend to pay more attention to observations that confirm our beliefs and filter out observations that challenge them. Where there are differences amongst us, they lie in the degree of awareness we have about confirmation bias and the efforts we make — or don’t make — to resist the bias and expand our perspective.
Jeffrey Saltzman recently blogged about a phenomenon called “filter bubbles,” which refers to a trend in internet search engines. “It used to be that when you searched the internet you got results that were wide open… (but) today’s search engines are becoming smarter,” he says. They filter your results according to your browsing and purchasing history, so that you get the kind of results that agree with your previous interests, opinions and consumer behavior. So instead of broadening your perspective on a topic, they confirm what you already know and believe.
It’s institutionalized confirmation bias.
This can’t possibly be a good thing. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who have strongly-held political, social and economic opinions and very little knowledge to back them up. They derive their opinions from Fox News or MSNBC commentators and spout them belligerently at every opportunity as if they were subject matter experts. When highly educated, experienced experts in a field can’t even agree on something (e.g. how to fix the current problems with our economy) why does someone with no education or experience in the field at all think they know the answers?
But many of us live in this filter bubble. Google a topic and you’ll get whatever you’re looking for, already sorted and selected to confirm what you already believe. I’ve left many a cocktail party early, in a state of annoyance, because of this very thing. Looks like it’s only going to get worse.
I love a good lawyer joke as much as the next guy, but here’s where the training that attorneys go through puts them at an advantage. They learn to always question what looks obvious, always look at it from the other perspective, always play the devil’s advocate. We would do well to learn a thing or two from them. Especially when we’re browsing the internet.