Confirmation bias is a tendency to seek and interpret information that agrees with our beliefs and expectations.  Confirmation bias is particularly rampant currently, made worse perhaps because this is an election year when politicians are making outrageous claims that differ from reality. 

In essence, confirmation bias is a tendency to see and hear what we want to see and hear, even when reality differs from our perceptions.  Psychology students learn in introductory courses that our brains interpret information from our senses to fit our expectations. 

The earth-centered model of the universe is an oft-cited example of confirmation bias.  Until the 18th century the Catholic Church held that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun, moon and stars rotated around the earth. 

Church authorities based their conclusion on the apparent movement of celestial bodies across the sky and on their interpretations of biblical passages that the earth was created by God to be most important.

Based on astronomic observations and mathematical calculations, Copernicus determined in the early part of the 16th century that the earth was not the center of the universe.  The earth and other observable planets, he said, rotate around the sun. 

Galileo, the Italian astronomer who is considered to be the father of modern physics, confirmed Copernicus’ observations in the next century, using better telescopes than were available to Copernicus.  

Catholic authorities declared Galileo a heretic and Copernicus’ claim to be false.  It wasn’t until the 18th century that the Catholic Church changed its stance and recognized the earth as a planet rotating around the sun and our solar system as but a small part of a massive universe. 

The media feed confirmation bias.  Most politicians who are campaigning for elective office, marketers, and news outlets use all forms of the media craftily; they understand psychology and they know how to exploit confirmation bias to their advantage.

Some favorite tactics for manipulating opinions are these:

  • Begin an advertisement spot or campaign statement with a predetermined conclusion that is cloaked in religious or constitutional ideology and which contains some grains of common sense, as well as promises to benefit the decision-maker;  
  • Present information that supports a foregone conclusion, while ignoring or diminishing contrary facts and alternative interpretations;
  • Repeat the message many times because the more frequently people read or hear something, the more likely they are to believe it to be true (psychologists call this the repetition illusion);
  • Present the information in support of the preconceived conclusion so that it polarizes the audience by appealing to emotions like sympathy, disgust, admiration for strength and anger;
  • If ascertained facts disagree with the foregone conclusion, then derogate the authenticity of the facts;
  • If all else fails, make up false stories which support the preconceived conclusions and portray the facts as incorrect.

How can confirmation bias be overcome in forming opinions?  Persons making decisions should seek information from a variety of sources, while trying to keep an open mind about what conclusions can be drawn.

Circumstances change and additional information is needed continuously.  It is especially necessary to seek information that disagrees with opinions that might have already been formed, because disparate information expands thinking processes. 

Alternative views, particularly those based on logical review of many options, are more likely to lead to correct decisions.  Those who employ confirmation bias seek to reduce decision-makers’ sources of information and promote fear so opinions are formed rapidly. 

America is not headed toward economic ruin or moral depravity, as some political candidates would like everyone to believe.  The United States is in better shape than a few years ago. 

Unemployment is half what it was six years ago; the Dow Jones stock market average is double what it was six years ago.  The difference between federal spending and income is the smallest since 2009.  The U.S. economy is positive and progressing modestly while many other major countries are experiencing recession.

No foreign terrorists have successfully launched attacks on American soil since 2001.  The number of illegal immigrants is declining.  Our leaders are working together cooperatively with allies to deter threats better than at any time since WWII.

Farming and ranching are prospering, rather than in need of greatness.  U.S. agricultural producers furnish the food, fiber and biofuel for all Americans and enough for an equal number of people outside our borders. 

They produce these essentials for life cheaper than anywhere else.  Agriculture is in the midst of a mild economic recession, but careful planning will enable most large and small operators to advance in 2016 and thereafter.

American print and broadcast media, however, should revise ethical codes to require higher standards of accuracy than are practiced.  They should publish only truthful information and cite references. 

I’m not sure what we can do so politicians communicate truthfully, except to vote.  Don’t be deceived by confirmation bias.   


For the record, Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa psychologist, farmer, university professor and a Catholic who also respects science.  He can be contacted at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com