‘Confirmation bias’ Your brain, your emotions, and you

Possible pull quote: “Do you believe children are lazy? Then you will subconsciously look for — and see — that behavior to affirm your beliefs.”

By Daniel Bobinski

Perhaps you’ve heard of the best-selling book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” It was a book the world needed, and it’s just as relevant today as it was when it came out in 1989. In many ways, it paved the road for the field of emotional intelligence, because it provides a framework for self-management and relationship management.

One of the recommendations in “7 Habits” is examining the lens through which we see the world. Why? Because if we have a particular belief system, we tend to see everything through that lens.

Do you believe children are lazy? Then you will subconsciously look for — and see — that behavior to affirm your beliefs. Do you believe people are typically selfish? You will look for — and see — instances of that, too. People tend to see what they believe. Examining our lens helps with understanding ourselves. We also need to realize that our family members each have their own lens.

This phenomenon of people seeing what they believe has a name: confirmation bias. I personally believe that confirmation bias is best understood from an emotional intelligence perspective.

To explain, when we’re very young we are simply observers of events going on around us. We have no control over them, they just happen. So, when we’re one or two years old, the only thing we can do is observe events and experience any emotions that emerge during those events.

Let’s say at the age of one we see a dog that is snarling and barking. If a parent is nearby (the person who provides our safety and security), and the parent displays immense fear about our safety, we’re quite likely to receive an emotional imprint of fear. If this emotion is experienced after multiple times of being around barking, snarling dogs, we become emotionally imprinted.

If the emotion for any event is extreme, we may be imprinted with only the one event. At that age, we have no choice in the matter. We’re just too young to process events cognitively. Until we reach an age at which we can cognitively reason otherwise, whenever we see a snarling, barking dog, we experience fear.

This is how many people get their beliefs about spiders and snakes. Our emotions are powerful things, and they drive our behaviors and decisions much more than we realize.

Once we form a view about something, confirmation bias kicks in quite easily. To quote Shahram Heshmat, writing in Psychology Today:

“Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.”

From a neuro-chemical perspective, our brain chemistry plays a big role in this. We see something that confirms a pattern of belief, and the brain’s “reward center” sends off signals that make us feel good. But when we see something that conflicts with our beliefs, it’s like our brain flashes a huge neon sign that reads, “Warning! Conflict! No neuropathways exist for this information! Avoid! Avoid!”

You may see emotional imprints forming in your children, but it happens all throughout our lives. In fact, confirmation biases continue to form even into our adult years. As long as there’s an emotional imprint associated with new learning, confirmation bias can develop. To make matters worse, our confirmation biases can create even more and different types of biases.

Let’s say you have a creepy, mean neighbor who always wears his favorite team’s jersey and always has a radio on in his garage, blaring music you can’t stand. You endure his obnoxiousness, but every interaction with him makes you want to run home and take a shower.

Eventually this guy moves, but two months after he’s gone, someone moves in two doors down in the other direction. He blares the same obnoxious music from his garage and wears that exact same team’s jersey. It’s practically guaranteed your first impression of this guy will not be good, even though you don’t even know him! In fact, you may even develop a negative reaction toward anyone who roots for that sports team. And if you see someone else wearing a jersey for that team and the person is advocating for something, you may think negatively about anyone else who advocates for the same cause, even if they’re not wearing a jersey. See what I mean?

Clients have told me more than a few stories about their confirmation biases, plus I have a few of my own. And those are just the ones I’m aware of.

We get it from the media, too. If there’s a character in a movie whom we don’t like, we may associate negative attributes toward anyone who loves that character. And if our favorite news anchor, talk show host, or political pundit gives a look of disgust when talking about a particular subject, we may adopt a similar attitude of disgust when that subject comes up in conversation. If we’re not careful, our emotions can drive our opinions, even in the face of compelling data that shows our opinion is incorrect.

So what’s your bias? Or biases? If you developed a belief as a result of a strong emotional imprint, it’s hard to consider an opposing point of view, isn’t it? Sadly, the neurochemical rewards that accompany anything that “confirms” our beliefs can be so strong, we may even perceive things that don’t really exist.

So, with that, allow me to encourage you to read (or re-read) Steven Covey’s “7 Habits” book. The framework and principles he presents for how to manage yourself and your family relationships are super powerful, so I recommend this book to everyone.

PS. If you have teens, you might also pick up a copy of “7 Habits for Highly Effective Teens,” by Stephen Covey’s son, Sean. He presents the same principles, but in language that teens can easily relate to.

Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. For more than 30 years he’s been working with teams and individuals (1:1 coaching) to help them achieve excellence. He was also teaching Emotional Intelligence since before it was a thing. Reach Daniel on his office phone, (208) 375-7606, or through his website, www.MyWorkplaceExcellence.com.

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