Confirmation Bias, Part 1

I read an article recently about confirmation bias and how it negatively impacts social science research and progress. Confirmation bias is “the tendency to seek, interpret, and create information in ways that verify existing beliefs.” (Brehm & Kassin, Social Psychology, 1989. Which is, coincidentally, a textbook for which Melissa co-authored the Instructor’s Manual and Study Guide.) Confirmation bias happened when one sticks to what one already believes despite conflicting, or contradictory, information. Often, the initial belief is based on incomplete information or, perhaps, new information is developed over time that is contrary to the old information. It is not always about “saving face,” though sometimes it may be. It may be a failure to consider whether the original belief is working and producing desirable results. Brehm & Kassin use an example of attorneys who continue with stereotype based jury selection despite tremendous amounts of scientific data which demonstrate that this is not an effective approach. In the article I mentioned, the problem noted is that it is difficult to publish research results which conflict with older, accepted, peer reviewed research. In that sometimes the new results may greatly expand a knowledge base – in an unpredicted direction, or may refute conventional wisdom, it seems there is sometimes a tendency for the scientific community to attempt to “bury” the new information rather than upset the status quo. Melissa experienced this with her doctoral dissertation which, because her research was in new territory (blending social and cognitive psychology), and it was a field study (meaning involving “real people” – not college student based research), she had difficulty finding a publisher. She did, and that study has subsequently been cited as foundational in the field of eyewitness identification, and the errors in eyewitness identification. (See Pigott, M.A., Brigham, J.C., & Bothwell, R.K. (1990). A field study on the relationship between quality of eyewitnesses’ descriptions and identification accuracy. Journal of Police Science and Administration, 17(2), 84-88.)It seems to me that, rather than rejecting information which is contrary, unexpected, or otherwise “new,” one should carefully consider it and ask whether existing internal biases are causing difficulty in integrating the new information. To be continued…

David’s post is interesting to me in two regards. First, it is interesting that David, and not I, chose a topic related to my background as a social psychologist. Second, it is interesting that David focused his post on confirmation bias in social science research. Recently, the media have frequently mentioned confirmation bias, as if it is something new. Perhaps the general public is learning about it for the first time, however, as with many things that are “old, but new again,” confirmation bias has been extensively studied by my social psychology colleagues since the 1940s. Pondering this reality makes me wonder if human beings will ever learn from past experience; the 1940s were almost 80 years ago! Nonetheless, it is still worthy of mentioning, just in case someone can benefit from learning about it. Dr. Robert Merton, a sociologist, was one of the first people to study confirmation bias, specifically, the self fulfilling prophecy. A self fulfilling prophecy is a form of confirmation bias in which a perceiver’s expectation leads to a situation turning out as expected (as in “Well, I knew it all along.”). One of the primary characteristics of confirmation bias is having a stake in the outcome of a situation. The more personal involvement someone has in a particular outcome, the greater likelihood he/she will obtain, then interpret (not to mention create) information in a manner that verifies an existing belief. David mentioned the example of my doctoral dissertation and its controversial results. My doctoral dissertation was a real world application of my master’s thesis and both of these studies challenged widely accepted research findings in the area of eyewitness memory. My background as a social psychologist, unlike many of my colleagues, includes extensive study in cognitive psychology. As a result, my hypotheses, research methodology, and interpretation of results were vastly different from scholarly articles that had been published in peer reviewed scientific journals. My research threatened to destroy the status quo, such that my article submissions were rejected by reviewers whose actions were dictated by confirmation bias. I was even told, by one so called expert in the field, to watch out, lest I “rock the boat” by alienating the esteemed academics whose work I dared question. This was, for me, an early real world example of the dangers of confirmation bias. Instead of welcoming new and innovative research, I was chastised for it, by my supposed highly intelligent colleagues. It seems that confirmation bias is present in many areas, including in my world as a social psychologist.

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