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How confirmation bias fuels conflict—and how to avoid it

Picture someone who holds an opposite view from your own. Make it a big deal—something that is non-negotiable to you, highly emotionally charged. Imagine having a conversation with this person about that topic. How long do you think it would take before you’re in a war of words?

You may find yourself saying something like this to yourself: “Why can’t they see the obvious truth? The facts are right in front of their face!”

Meanwhile, they have the same question—of you.

Somehow the two of you took the same data set and used it to come to different conclusions. And like most people, you both feel your convictions are rational, logical and impartial…and right! No matter what is said to convince you otherwise, you’re both “dug in.”

Happens all the time. It’s got a name: Confirmation bias. It’s one of the unconscious inclinations that is hardwired into all of us. It’s the human tendency—in fact, it’s more than a tendency; it’s unfailing—to look for information that supports our preconceived ideas and beliefs.

We all do it.

Do you only follow or “friend” people on social media who share your viewpoint? Do you choose news sources that support your opinion? Have you ever said to yourself, “My respect for that person just did a total 180!”—and all they did was agree or disagree with you on some hot topic? That’s confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a collaboration killer—because it makes it so difficult to look at a situation from the other party’s point of view. It fuels conflict.

Simple truth is we prefer our own ideas. We assume we’re right and the person with a different point of view is wrong.

Hence, conflict is a frequent result.

If you want to become adept at conflict resolution (or just get along with more people in your life), you need to learn how to defeat confirmation bias. Until you do, you’ll always misperceive your “opponent’s” intent. You will be unable to see things from their point of view—practice Perspective Taking, as we say in our leadership workshop The You Turn from Conflict to Collaboration.

In this post, we will look at the unconscious predisposition known as confirmation bias. We’ll define it and demonstrate how it can get in the way in conflict management. Finally, we’ll discuss some ways to overcome confirmation bias and move from conflict to collaboration.

Ready? Let’s go.

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor or recognize only information and opinions that agree with our own preconceived ideas, beliefs and values.

When trying to determine a course of action or make a decision, we will keep on searching until we find what fits with what we already know or believe to be true. We will pay attention to the information that upholds our beliefs while at the same time ignoring or rejecting the information that challenges those beliefs.

Thanks to confirmation bias, people on two sides of an issue can listen to the same story and walk away with different interpretations that they feel validates their existing point of view.

Confirmation bias can determine whether one believes in a scientific explanation for a phenomena like climate change or vaccines. It also manifests in spiritual, cultural and lifestyle subjects like politics, gay marriage, abortion or gun control. And the “hotter,” or more personal the belief, the more intense the belief will be held and the more volatile conflict can become when that belief is challenged.

Where does confirmation bias come from?

  • It’s a natural result of having to handle the immense amount of information we must process to make decisions. Confirmation bias is an efficient way to process information. Our caveman forebears needed to process information quickly to get out of harm’s way. It might be a bear—run!

  • What we believe is often handed down generation to generation. As we grow up, we learn and take on the view of those around us, especially those whom we look up to: parents, teachers, mentors, colleagues and spiritual leaders. We become attached to our beliefs to be accepted in our community.

  • People want to feel that they are intelligent and information that suggests we hold an inaccurate belief or made a poor decision suggests we are lacking intelligence or ignorant.

  • Confirmation bias bolsters self-esteem. It feels good to be right. Therefore, we will seek information that supports our existing beliefs. Discovering a belief is untrue can be devastating to our own sense of self-worth and confidence.

How our context feeds conflict

Conflict is any time your interests and another person’s interests are in opposition. Confirmation bias fuels conflict by preventing opposing sides from seeing the value in their opponent’s point of view. (See: Why is empathy so important in resolving conflict?)

Every bit of data you take in each day goes through a filter—your “context.” It’s made up of your opinions, your attitudes, your beliefs—all of those things that make up “the rules we live by.” Truth with a capital T. We all tend to let in what confirms our context and reject what doesn’t.

But there’s a problem when we limit information.

When we don’t seek out objective fact and interpret information in a way that only supports our existing beliefs and only remembering details that uphold those beliefs, we often miss important information — information that could influence a different point of view.

Think of an election season. People tend to seek information that paints their candidate or their party or their issue in a positive light. They also look for information that puts the opposite candidate or party or issue in a negative light (or they ignore it altogether).

Our context can open up possibilities or close them down. The next time you find yourself thinking or saying things like, “That will never work,” or “This is the only way,” it’s an opportunity to clean your context filter and see if what you are believing is building collaboration or setting you up for conflict.

How to overcome confirmation bias

The route from conflict to collaboration is to challenge our biases. To do this successfully, we need to increase our self-awareness and strengthen our ability to set aside thoughts and beliefs that trigger conflicts.

One way to do this is through the positive constructive behavior called Perspective Taking: Putting yourself in the other person’s position and trying to understand their point of view. (See also: Bring a beginner’s brain to conflict)

Perspective Taking requires that we get curious and ask clarifying questions. We need to seek first to understand.

Here are some suggestions to help you on this journey:

  • Overcome the fear of new ideas. Humans are creatures of habit. But humans are also adventurers, striving for knowledge and achievement. New ideas shouldn’t scare us. The wise person realizes they have nothing to fear from the truth. Before Einstein came up with his general theory of relativity, the all-but-blanket assumption was that the universe was static—neither expanding nor contracting. Einstein’s equations allowed for a dynamic universe, but his idea was tossed out outright. Of course, we know his theories were eventually accepted and it changed how we think about space and time.

  • Accept that sometimes we are wrong, and in fact, understand that being wrong is part of being human. We all make mistakes. It is an inevitable part of being human. So, to challenge our confirmation bias, we need to allow ourselves to be wrong. “It is through the mistakes that the greatest learning happens on an inner level,” according to author Eckhart Tolle. If you can’t admit defeat or that you’ve made an error in judgment or belief, it makes you incapable of making new discoveries in this world. We should feel comfortable embracing our mistakes. It’s the only way we are sure we are truly learning.

  • Be aware of your belief systems. Our beliefs are developed and inherited. We often believe what we believe because we were taught or told to believe it—again and again. That’s normal—but allow yourself to test your “truth” against capital “T” truth. And it’s not just of those topics you support. It’s also the things that rub you the wrong way and are emotionally charged. (See: Manage conflict when it starts by learning your hot buttons.)

  • Ask questions to find truth, not validation. Many people ask questions, but they don’t really want the answers. No matter the answer they hear, they will cling to their preconceived idea. When talking with someone who may have an opposing view, ask questions that foster conversation, not confirmation. A good question is “What do you believe about this topic?” A better question is “Why do you believe this?” Or even better—“What led you to believe this?” Ask questions to find other people’s truth.

Wrapping up

Confirmation bias—the tendency to reinforce our cherished beliefs—is a collaboration killer because it prevents us from understanding the other party in the conflict. We can overcome confirmation bias, but it takes effort and practice.

Don’t give up. Take time to recognize, contemplate and question your own thoughts and beliefs. Are they adding to your conflicts with others? Is your context working for you or would you benefit from opening your mind to a different perspective? Take the steps to be genuinely curious about opposing views and really listen to what others have to say. You may be pleasantly surprised at the result.

You CAN build your conflict resolution and management skills. Contact us for information on our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration. This online class will provide you the insight and skill-building you need to resolve conflict quickly and build strong, trusting relationships.

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