You grow up in Ballarat. You regularly see black swans. After a while you’ll draw your conclusion: all swans are black. There is another swan! You see? It is black. That is what they are supposed to look like..
So what happens when someone tells you that swans can also be white? How do you respond? Do you start to defend yourself, stating that only black swans are real swans? Or do you become curious to see if what you are seeing is only your truth?
I recently had an argument with my wife. She asked me to “grab the green blanket”, and I struggled to understand what she meant. She became slightly annoyed, because apparently it was the blanket right in front of me. “Oh, that blanket? I would actually call that blue!” Isn’t it fascinating that we can all look at a similar thing and have such a different experience about what we see? I love those revelations and it is the main reason I love to study social science and human behaviour.
Apparently we all form our own truth. In the example with my wife, that can be explained by having different rods and cones in our eyes which presents a slightly different colour per individual, but often we carry around some truths and facts, which we aren’t even aware of.
Take the swan example. Someone growing up in Ballarat would have a totally different image of a swan to someone growing up in the Netherlands, like I did. Arguing over what a swan is, would be to some degree useless. But yet, we do it more than we know, and especially since we are spending more time on social media.
What is a confirmation bias?
If you tend to defend your own perception as the one truth, chances are you are having a confirmation bias. This phenomenon in social psychology is also described by Wikipedia as ‘the tendency to search for, interpret, favour and recall information that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values’. I would just call it ‘convincing yourself’. And it can be a real show stopper to collaborate or to solve problems together.
The alternative for a confirmation bias
The example of the swans in the intro, was actually used as a metaphor by Karl Popper back in 1934. For your context, living in Europe, Popper used white swans to explain the bias. The swan metaphor was his story to explain how dangerous it could be to confirm your own hypothesis. He showed us that if your goal is to find something, you’ll find it one way or the other. Also if that means you are bending the rules of logic..
Popper proposed a different approach to do research and to view the world: falsification. This means that, instead of proving your point, you would look at different ways to find why your truth wasn’t holding up. He invited people to falsify their own beliefs. In fact he urged people to stress test their own belief and shoot holes in their one theories. What is left of the theory can be deducted to hold some kind of truth. But still: only as you see it.
So why would you care about the advice of this guy who lived in the previous century? Well, in modern words this guy would tell you to be more curious about your own bullshit. Assuming you don’t know, is always a better approach than the absolute certainty that what you see is the absolute truth. Assuming you know that the Coronavirus is a hoax or that Daniel Andrews has a secret agenda to control everyone in Victoria, brings some comfort, but what if you are wrong?
The unhelpful technology that shapes your confirmation bias
Maybe it is my own confirmation bias, but it seems that the theories about what is true have become more evident since the coronavirus is among us. I was triggered to write this blog after seeing a video by Arjen Lubach, a Dutch critic who enjoys to bust some hard wired myths and biases in our society. In his video he argues that our usage of social media has actually strengthened our belief that we know the truth.
Platforms like Facebook, Google, YouTube and most of the other well-known social media platforms are using algorithms that serve you content and advertisements based on what you click. So the more videos you watch about cats, the more cat videos will be suggested to you. This self-propelling confirmation bias helps us to find things that we may like, but also narrows our perception of events. Lubach argues that the technology companies carry some responsibility in shaping more conspiracy theorists among us because of that.
My point here is not to argue with you or to convince you what you should or should not believe. And I am sure that there are some confirmation biases subconsciously present in this blog. However, I think it is important to be conscious that there is something called a ‘confirmation bias’ and that we are easily prone to have one, without us knowing it. And I think we should listen more to guys like Popper, who are slightly more boring than the average influencer, but who help us to be more curious rather than to be sure.
Yes, I could cause an argument with my wife about what is blue compared to what is green. And she could also say how weird I am to call something blue that is obviously green. But that would make us both look stupid. Wouldn’t it? By the way, what colour do you see?
You don’t have to agree with someone to recognise you see things differently. Enjoy it. Be a bit more curious. And maybe you’ll see that there are so many beautiful ways to perceive things, apart from what you already know.