Dangers of the comfort zone

The tendency to look for evidence that supports what we already think we know, a.k.a. confirmation bias, is responsible for some serious damage in this world. From designers not being capable of killing their darlings when user research shows a clear need to do so, to physicians getting attached to a diagnosis and then looking for evidence of the symptoms they suspect already exist, while ignoring markers of other diseases.

Confirmation bias is an extensively researched psychological phenomenon that influences our ability to process information objectively. It refers to our tendency to seek, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs and values, while ignoring or dismissing any evidence that contradicts them. Confirmation bias is a natural part of being human, but if we are not watchful, it can lead to serious errors in judgment with grave consequences.

It is well known that confirmation bias can lead us to seek out relationships with people who share our beliefs, values, and lifestyles, and avoid those who don’t. This can create a situation where we almost exclusively talk to people with opinions that reinforce our own, leading to a lack of influx of new thoughts and a narrowing worldview.

In the world of today, this danger is amplified by technology. Through media, social and other, we are constantly bombarded with news, advertising and personal opinions. The algorithms that feed us the content that we crave add even more ‘umph’ to our confirmation bias tendencies, creating the phenomenon known as ‘filter bubbles’.

Many new proposed associations and effects in scientific studies are false or grossly exaggerated.

Not even science is immune to confirmation bias. John Ioannidis, a professor at Stanford University has conducted research on research (or ‘meta-research’), and found that across the scientific field, “many new proposed associations and effects in scientific studies are false or grossly exaggerated.” Ioannidis study showed that the frequency of ‘positive research results’ well exceeded how often one should expect to find such results, from a statistical standpoint.

Even if living with confirmation bias is part of being human, there is a silver lining. We can overcome confirmation bias by actively seeking out information that challenges our beliefs and values.
This requires an open mind and putting greater value on things that have fallen out of fashion, such as humbleness, being curious about people who are different than us and embracing doubt.

Becoming more aware of our inherent confirmation bias will make us better, more empathetic human beings. If we can develop a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the world around us, we can also avoid some of the dangers lurking in our cosy, but limiting, comfort zones.

/Rasmus Lehnér