A few years ago, I bought several pairs of running shoes that did not work for me. With each increasingly more expensive purchase, I was convinced that this pair was going to be the pair for me. There was one brand of shoes that I refused to look at. I thought they were ugly, so I dismissed them. Yet, when injuries started to pile up and after almost 6 months of rest without being able to run, I decided to let an expert have a say and I went to a local running store known for finding the right shoe for the runner.
My expert brought out a lot of pairs of shoes, I think around 10 or 11 boxes. He placed all but one in front of me and told me that I was to try on all of the shoes. He then pointed to the box he had put to the side and let me know that this was the shoe I was going to go home with. As you can probably guess, the singled-out shoe was the ugly shoe.
I remember putting on all the other shoes and accepting that they just didn’t feel right. Then I put on the “ugly” shoe. They were black and day-glow yellow. If the yellow was red, you could have put a Spiderman sticker on them and sold them to kindergarteners. Just as my expert had noted, I was about to experience the power of being wrong. Upon putting on the shoes I looked at him and exclaimed, “Seriously! Running shoes that feel like this are an option?”
I have now run thousands of injury-free kilometres since and convinced my mom (who has the same brick of a foot as me), to buy the same shoe to a similar effect! Thankfully the brand’s styling has improved significantly, but I still keep that first pair of well-worn day-glow yellow and black shoes as a reminder that what I think doesn’t matter, what matters is what works.
You Get an Opinion
Our society is inundated with opinions. Anywhere you go, you will face people expressing opinions about the “best,” “correct,” and “right” way to do something. (If you don’t believe me, try typing any task from tying your shoe to changing your oil into YouTube). Disagreements arise because all you have to do is complete a Google search to find opinions, as opposed to evidence, to support your position.
In my case, I believed that price and appearance were associated with “best” and “right” fit for a running shoe. Unconsciously, I let the marketing affect my values which in turn dictated my opinion about how a shoe should look and that, somehow, related to the performance of the shoe. It is true that I had heard that these other shoes were likely too narrow for my feet, but I had minimized this factor as I fell for the marketing. To support my position, I perused the customer reviews of the other shoes, many of which supported my solidifying view on shoes. I, of course, did not know if any of those positive reviews were linked to people with feet like mine.
I had fallen into the trap of something called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when we overemphasize the evidence that supports our desired belief and minimize the evidence that challenges our belief.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Once a confirmation bias takes hold it leads us further from the illuminating information we sought in the first place. We are effectively led by our noses down a rabbit hole where one idea supports another. It feels good as one idea supports another and makes us feel as if we have a firm grasp on truth and reality. Meanwhile, our position becomes more and more extreme, separating us from others with contrary views. With an ever-sharper eye we nimbly recognize and dismiss contrary views and readily find opinions to support our position until, as if by magic, we are suddenly estranged and polarized from people we had previously cherished.
When dealing with something simple like shopping for shoes, the results can be somewhat humorous. But if this is a pitfall we can fall into for something as simple as buying shoes, (or lipstick, or jeans, or computers, or …), perhaps the stakes are higher with the beliefs we hold closest to ourselves
We all have to ask ourselves this question, what do we have our eye on? The more our eye is set on that object, idea, or opinion, the more we are susceptible to confirmation bias. The more our eye is set on that object, idea, or opinion, the more we link our sense of self to that object, idea, or opinion such that any argument against it suddenly threatens the core of who we are. The confirmation bias sinks deeper into our reasoning until we cannot recognize it for what it is. The problem is that the blindness makes us feel good.
The maladaptive benefit of confirmation bias is that it becomes entrenched with our beliefs about ourselves and the world, we start to feel better about ourselves. We then surround ourselves with like-minded individuals with like-minded opinions. Confirmation bias helps us to connect feeling good, with our beliefs. We think we are right because we feel right.
Bringing it Home
In my previous post, I discussed how assuming the wrong emotion can lead us astray. Confirmation bias and how it helps us to avoid potential distress has a similar consequence. When we fall victim to confirmation bias we become increasingly entrenched in our ideas, unwilling to bend lest we break. We avoid challenging our ideas and people who might challenge them. In our desire to feel good about ourselves we lose friends, and family, and, despite how good we feel about being right, we are increasingly lonely. We have subjected ourselves to the ostracizing consequences of separating ourselves from community.
Out of the Rabbit Hole
Instead of spending energy polarizing ourselves – potentially away from those we love – we can embrace the challenge. If you are already convinced of your rightness, then it is only logical that you should spend more time investigating the challenging information then the affirming information. Yet, cognitive bias makes us want to avoid challenging information because we align the good feelings with the information we seek. On the other hand, we associate negative feelings – such as distrust – with the very information we should be investing in.
The truth of the matter is not likely found in the polarized and dichotomous thinking of talking heads in newspaper columns and cable news shows. It might also not be found in the middle of the road or golden mean way of thinking. Instead, it is quite likely that the truth we seek is found in the dialogue between opinions – with real people in real life. This place of potential dissonance holds the balance between sliding down the slope of a good feeling rabbit hole of confirmation bias and experiencing contact with truly helpful understanding.