What Is Confirmation Bias? | Definition & Examples

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and prefer information that supports our preexisting beliefs. As a result, we tend to ignore any information that contradicts those beliefs. Confirmation bias is often unintentional but can still lead to poor decision-making in (psychology) research and in legal or real-life contexts.

Example: Confirmation bias
During presidential elections, people tend to seek information that paints the candidate they support in a positive light, while dismissing any information that paints them in a negative light.

This type of research bias is more likely to occur while processing information related to emotionally charged topics, values, or deeply held beliefs.

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias, or an error in thinking. Processing all the facts available to us costs us time and energy, so our brains tend to pick the information that agrees most with our preexisting opinions and knowledge. This leads to faster decision-making. Mental “shortcuts” like this are called heuristics.

When confronted with new information that confirms what we already believe, we are more likely to:

  • Accept it as true and accurate
  • Overlook any flaws or inconsistencies
  • Incorporate it into our belief system
  • Recall it later, using it to support our belief during a discussion

On the other hand, if the new information contradicts what we already believe, we respond differently. We are more likely to:

  • Become defensive about it
  • Focus on criticizing any flaw, while that same flaw would be ignored if the information confirmed our beliefs
  • Forget this information quickly, not recalling reading or hearing about it later on
Confirmation bias in psychology
In psychology, confirmation bias is often restricted to the act of selecting information according to preexisting beliefs, while ignoring or rejecting information supporting contrary beliefs. However, it can also be applied more broadly, to include how we interpret and recall information.

Types of confirmation bias

There are three main ways that people display confirmation bias:

This type of bias occurs when only positive evidence is sought, or evidence that supports your expectations or hypotheses. Evidence that could prove them wrong is systematically disregarded.

Example: Selective search
Biased search for information occurs in real life more often than we realize. For example, if you type the question “are dogs better than cats?” into an online search engine, articles that argue in favor of dogs will appear first.

If you reverse the question and type “are cats better than dogs?”, you will get results in support of cats.

This will happen with any two variables: the search engine “assumes” that you think variable A is better than variable B, and shows you the results that agree with your opinion first.

Instead, try typing the question “which one is better, A or B?” This is more likely to yield a balanced mix of results.

Biased interpretation of information

Confirmation bias is not limited to the type of information we search for. Even if two people are presented with the same information, it is possible that they will interpret it differently.

Example: Selective interpretation
Let’s suppose two people read the same news story about the need to cut down on fossil fuel emissions in order to combat climate change. One reader is a climate change doubter, while the other believes that climate change is a real threat.

The reader who doubts climate change may interpret the article as evidence that climate change is natural and has happened at other points in history. Any arguments raised in the article about the negative impact of fossil fuels will be dismissed.

On the other hand, the reader who is concerned about climate change will view the information as evidence that climate change is a threat and that something must be done about it. Appeals to cut down fossil fuel emissions will be viewed favorably.

The two readers have very different opinions on the same subject, formed prior to reading the article. Their interpretations are based on their preexisting beliefs. Even though they read the same story, their bias shapes how they evaluate the information, further reinforcing their existing beliefs.

Biased recall of information

Confirmation bias also affects what type of information we are able to recall.

Example: Selective recall
Let’s revisit the previous example on the climate change news story. The article presents arguments in favor of cutting down fossil fuel emissions.

A week after encountering the story, the reader who is concerned about climate change is more likely to recall these arguments in a discussion with friends. On the contrary, a climate change doubter likely won’t be able to recall the points made in the article.

Due to confirmation bias, we tend to memorize and recall information that is more in line with our existing ideas.

Confirmation bias examples

Confirmation bias has serious implications for our ability to seek objective facts. It can lead individuals to “cherry-pick” bits of information that reinforce any prejudices or stereotypes.

Example: Confirmation bias
A 55-year-old man arrives at the ER at 3 a.m. complaining of severe back pain. The man has visited the hospital several times already that week, always with the same complaint. It is a busy night, and no rooms are available. The staff suspect that he is seeking prescriptions for painkillers.

An overworked physician, believing this is just drug-seeking behavior, examines him hastily in the hall. The physician confirms that all of the man’s vital signs are fine: consistent with what was expected.

The man is discharged. Because the physician was only looking for what was already expected, she missed the signs that the man was actually having a problem with his kidneys.

Relying on a preliminary hunch in this manner is an example of confirmation bias, and a potential pitfall in medical decision-making.

Confirmation bias can lead to poor decision-making in various contexts, including interpersonal relationships, medical diagnoses, or applications of the law.

Example: Confirmation bias
You are researching whether playing memory games helps delay memory loss in people with Alzheimer’s disease. You have high expectations that memory games can help people.

Due to this, you unconsciously seek information to support your hypothesis during the data collection phase, rather than remaining open to results that could disprove it. At the end of your research, you conclude that memory games do indeed delay memory loss.

Due to confirmation bias, a systematic error is introduced in your research, making the impact of memory games appear greater than it actually is. This leads to false conclusions.

How to avoid confirmation bias

Although confirmation bias cannot be entirely eliminated, there are steps you can take to avoid it:

  • First and foremost, accept that you have biases that impact your decision-making. Even though we like to think that we are objective, it is our nature to use mental shortcuts. This allows us to make judgments quickly and efficiently, but it also makes us disregard information that contradicts our views.
  • Do your research thoroughly when searching for information. Actively consider all the evidence available, rather than just the evidence confirming your opinion or belief. Only use credible sources that can pass the CRAAP test.
  • Make sure you read entire articles, not just the headline, prior to drawing any conclusions. Analyze the article to see if there is reliable evidence to support the argument being made. When in doubt, do further research to check if the information presented is trustworthy.

Frequently asked questions about confirmation bias

Why is bias in research a problem?

Bias affects  the validity and reliability of your findings, leading to false conclusions and a misinterpretation of the truth. This can have serious implications in areas like medical research where new forms of treatment are being evaluated.

What’s the difference between reliability and validity?

Reliability and validity are both about how well a method measures something:

  • Reliability refers to the consistency of a measure (whether the results can be reproduced under the same conditions).
  • Validity refers to the accuracy of a measure (whether the results really do represent what they are supposed to measure).

If you are doing experimental research, you also have to consider the internal and external validity of your experiment.

Why is bias in research a problem?

Research bias affects the validity and reliability of your research findings, leading to false conclusions and a misinterpretation of the truth. This can have serious implications in areas like medical research where, for example, a new form of treatment may be evaluated.

Why is information literacy important?

It can sometimes be hard to distinguish accurate from inaccurate sources, especially online. Published articles are not always credible and can reflect a biased viewpoint without providing evidence to support their conclusions.

Information literacy is important because it helps you to be aware of such unreliable content and to evaluate sources effectively, both in an academic context and more generally.

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students.

1 comment

Kassiani Nikolopoulou
Kassiani Nikolopoulou (Scribbr Team)
September 19, 2022 at 1:49 PM

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