Confirmation bias ~ how it can make it or break it for you…

Last week I was telling my students how they would end up finding my course interesting or boring depending on their initial expectations of it. We all have a tendency to look for evidence that confirms our expectations or beliefs about people, about places, about ourselves… Cognitive psychologists call this very well documented tendency confirmation bias. It can influence how you perceive the world, how you judge people or how you evaluate yourself. And why do we have this bias? Because we like being right – it makes us feel good!

That’s why I was not surprised to read one of the first tips suggested to expatriates in a recent relocation article in the Financial Times: “Don’t go looking for flaws!” It could have likewise said, “Look for positive things!”

There are many examples of how starting out with mindsets such as “They don’t like foreigners here” or “Locals are not helpful, distant, arrogant (list can go forever)” can spoil your – otherwise can be very rewarding – international experience! You will simply end up looking for evidence that will confirm those beliefs. And will you find that evidence? You bet! There will always be some behaviors that are unhelpful or distant, but even more importantly (or shall I say, dangerously!) some that you’ll interpret as unhelpful or distant. And here you go – you set yourself up for a negative experience. Here are three ways how confirmation bias works…

First, you seek biased evidence. You’ll pay more attention to – let’s take being distant – distant behaviors and you’ll become more likely to interpret even neutral or ambiguous behaviors as distant. Here’s how. You run into your neighbors in the mornings on your way to work, and they always seem to cut the conversations short. You decide “See, they are distant – all they do is a say a few words”. Have you considered the possibility that they are in a rush, or they are not confident with their language skills if your conversations are not in the local language? On top of that somehow you fail to notice their warm greetings when you see them over the weekend.

Second, because previously you have paid attention to or interpreted incidents in line with your expectations; those will be the ones recorded in your memory. When it comes to remembering things you recall things also in a biased way. Maybe your neighbors do talk for longer some mornings, but again somehow you always remember those short conversations.

Finally, you start believing in what psychologists call “illusory correlations” – meaning you see relationships between things where there is none. Once you have in your mind linked locals with distant behaviors, each distant behavior you encounter will be explained by being [insert the group you have in mind here!]. In reality, there is no such relationship because there are many warm people in the culture where you live or there are many distant people in any culture.

And here’s the icing on the cake. All this can end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy! Because by now you have found enough evidence that these people are distant, your behaviors will reflect that perception – you’ll be less talkative and warm towards them. And guess how they’ll respond to your distant behavior! Congratulations, you have really made your expectation come true!

Doesn’t sound adaptive, does it? But don’t be discouraged, the beauty of confirmation bias is that it also works in the other direction! Imagine the opposite of above example – that you start out with the belief that locals in your new host culture are warm and friendly people. It opens up possibilities for very positive experiences! Well, you know what to do ~ enjoy!

This entry was posted in beliefs, Cognitive biases, Confirmation bias, Self-fulfilling prophecy. Bookmark the permalink.

Schreibe einen Kommentar