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HERO Skills Challenge: Breaking Bad Bias - Confirmation Bias

The Echo Chamber

The first rumble of suspicion came amidst during sometime during a fishing trip with some buddies when I found myself in the grips of the great hot dog debate" – Is a hot dog a sandwich? A passionate defender of the "not-a-sandwich" camp, I found myself locked in an intense (and frankly, hilarious) verbal conflict with a colleague, a staunch advocate for the sandwich perspective. Fueled by the righteous conviction that hot dogs transcended the limitations of mere sandwiches, I spent the next several days researching the topic with the vigor of Monty Python on his quest for the Holy Grail. Articles, forums, and even historical accounts – everything was fair game in my pursuit of hot dog vindication. A few days later, while sipping some early morning coffee and browsing the news on my laptop, a headline caught my eye: "The Hot Dog Debate: Settled by Science?!" My heart, one of a highly trained scientist, emboldened by the promise of validation, clicked on the link with the speed of a condiment-laden missile. The article, adorned with fancy charts and graphs, declared hot dogs to be a distinct culinary entity, separate from the realm of sandwiches. A cheer erupted from my lips, startling the person next to me in the coffee shop. "See?" My Ancient Brain whispered triumphantly to my not present hot dog-is-a-sandwich-convinced friends, "Science agrees with me!"


But then, a sliver of doubt wormed its way into my mind. Was this just a lucky coincidence, an algorithm-driven echo chamber rewarding my existing beliefs? Could it be that my internet search, fueled by my pre-existing hot dog is royalty belief, had only shown me information that confirmed my conviction, while conveniently ignoring the arguments of the "sandwich" side?

Riddled by this newfound uncertainty, the scientist in my Modern Brain decided to examine with some objectivity. Maybe there was more to this story than just the pure, unadulterated joy of a perfectly grilled hot dog (which I still reject being labeled a lowly sandwich). And so began a deeper dive into the pool of cognitive biases. In this case, specifically confirmation bias, and how a person like myself, much educated on cognitive biases, can still fall prey to its subtle and sometimes powerful effects. If intrigued, join me in exploring a psychological phenomenon that can make us see the world through rose-colored lenses of our own making, whether we’re talking about hot dogs, the hiring and promotion process, climate change, or whatever subjects on which we and others hold strong beliefs.


What is Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation Bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. Social media can serve as a digital echo chamber, where our beliefs are constantly affirmed but rarely challenged. It’s a classic playground of confirmation bias and a phenomenon we've all experienced, whether we're (or algorithms) are selecting news sources that align with our social (and political) views or seeking advice from friends who we know will side with us. This phenomenon isn't confined to social media; it permeates every aspect of our lives, from the news we consume to the conversations we engage in, shaping our perceptions and decisions in profound ways.


  • Psychological Perspective: From a psychological standpoint, confirmation bias is rooted in the desire to avoid cognitive dissonance – the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind simultaneously. To maintain a sense of internal consistency, we naturally gravitate towards information that validates our existing beliefs.

  • Human Behavioral Science Perspective: In human behavioral science, confirmation bias is seen as a byproduct of heuristics – mental shortcuts that allow for easier decision-making. While these shortcuts are necessary for managing the vast amount of information we encounter daily, they also lead us to overlook evidence that contradicts our preconceived notions.

  • Neuroscience Perspective: Neuroscience explains confirmation bias through the brain's reward system. Agreeable information triggers a positive emotional response, reinforcing our existing beliefs. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that confirmation of our beliefs activates areas of the brain associated with reward (the mesolimbic system), similar to when we eat food we enjoy or win a prize.


Confirmation Bias in Action

  • At the Workplace: In a corporate setting, confirmation bias might manifest during a hiring process. A manager might unconsciously favor candidates who share their own views, come from similar backgrounds, or graduated the same university, thereby overlooking potentially more qualified individuals with different perspectives.

  • At Home: At home, confirmation bias can affect how we handle disagreements with family members. For instance, if you believe one of your children is more responsible than the other, you might interpret ambiguous actions in a way that confirms this belief, regardless of the actual intent behind those actions.


HERO Skills to the Rescue

Recalling the “hot dog-is-more-than-a-sandwich” debate from our introduction, let's explore how the HERO Skills can help us break free from the clutches of confirmation bias and the echo chamber in which I recognized myself to be in.


  • Humility allows me to acknowledge that my belief that hot dogs are not sandwiches is limited, just one perspective, that it could be an opinion not based on fact, and that it could even be wrong, or that there could exist multiple valid positions.

  • Empathy enables me to genuinely try to consider and understand others' perspectives on the hot dog debate, even if they challenge my own strong belief.

  • Reflection involves me critically analyze my thought processes, mindfully consider “hot dog” information sources, and recognizing when I may be falling victim to confirmation bias.

  • Open-mindedness encourages me to step out of my existing comfort zone of belief, to seek out and consider information that challenges my preconceptions about hot dogs.


Employing these HERO Skills, I can begin to question the echo chamber, seeking out diverse opinions and evidence, and opening myself up to new, different ideas and viewpoints. It doesn’t necessarily mean I have to give up my position (though sometimes I may need to). It just means that there could exist other valid viewpoints to which I should give credence.


Echoes of Change

Ok, much to my dismay, my research uncovered evidence that a hot dog can indeed be labeled a sandwich. One dictionary definition technically places the hot dog in the sandwich category. It defines a sandwich as “two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between." With that definition I can see how others would argue that it is a sandwich. However, many others like myself, see it as more than a sandwich, different than a mere sandwich. Just like a 1965 Ford Mustang is technically car but is much more than a mere car. Both can be true whether we’re talking classic automobiles or hot dogs.


The whimsical hot dog debate with which we began illustrates how easily confirmation bias can creep into our lives, shaping our perceptions and interactions with others in subtle but sometimes profound ways. By fully understanding this bias and how it operates, we can open ourselves to multiple perspectives, creating a path for our own learning and growth. But even more importantly, we can knock down emotional and cognitive barriers that prevent us from relationships with others who see the world differently. By recognizing confirmation bias in action, and applying the HERO Skills, we can start to dismantle the walls of our echo chambers and be role model for others for addressing bias.


So, I challenge you to confront confirmation bias head-on. Work on yourself first. Next time you encounter information that aligns with your beliefs, take a moment to reflect on why you believe a certain way. Ask yourself some questions like:


·      What information are you using to draw conclusions?

·      Is there more information out there you don’t know about that could change your conclusion?

·      Are you separating the cognitive and emotional factors that go along with beliefs?

·      Can you seek out an opposing viewpoint with genuine curiosity.


Using the HERO Skills as a guide to navigate this journey, we can embrace Humility, Empathy, Reflection, and Open-mindedness as powerful tools for guidance. By doing so, not only can we broaden our own horizons, but we can also be great role models for others as we all make our way through a complex, multiple shades of gray world. In honestly addressing biases like confirmation bias, we find not only personal growth but also the key to fostering more inclusive, high-performance cultures in our workplaces and communities.


Stay tuned for our next installment of the HERO Skills Challenge: Breaking Bad Bias as we explore the Availability Heuristic.


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