Arguments and Confirmation Bias

May 5th, 2011

An article from wired that I was reading today pointed out an interesting connection between argumentation and confirmation bias. I never would have thought the two were so connected before now, but it actually makes sense.

The article begins by wondering at the phenomenon of confirmation bias. Why do we even have it? Why is it that we dumbly look only for evidence that supports the idea we already have in mind, and are blind to contrary evidence? The result is that people make tons of bad choices! But what they point out is that this ability to only see things that confirm an idea is helpful when it comes to being persuasive. If I’m encouraging you to do something for me, I only want to give reasons you should do it, not reasons you shouldn’t.

It makes sense, and it speaks to our being designed for community. We literally can’t think logically about things without another person to bounce ideas off of. The other person has their own confirmation bias and, hopefully, you’ll get someone with a different idea than you. The result is a debate, and you get different ideas going back and fourth in opposition to each other. So our confirmation bias actually does work towards logical conclusions, but only in the context of a somewhat diverse community.

I think that confirmation bias further functions to strengthen the community once the debate is over and a conclusion is reached: everyone agrees on the idea in the end, and then everyone’s confirmation bias kicks in to start seeing reasons that it was right, bonding the community in agreement. That’s why stores have liberal return policies. As much as you may be debating in your head and hesitant about a purchase, once you’ve got it, you start seeing all the reasons you should keep it, even if you thought you didn’t like it before.

Where debates don’t end in agreement, community tends to polarize more and more, splitting into factions that will probably separate. This seems unfortunate but is probably helpful in that it keeps a diversity of approaches to life alive. You have people making cars that run on gas, and people making cars that run on electricity (like we did at the turn of the 20th century). If both approaches are perused, then you have better options down the line. If only one is perused (e.g. gas) then it’s really hard to adapt when problems emerge with that approach.