Wisdom//

Confirmation Bias is Warping Your Perception of Things

If you tend to cherry-pick information that confirms your existing beliefs, you're probably guilty of this habit.

Courtesy of Boris SV/Getty Images
Courtesy of Boris SV/Getty Images

Have you ever held onto a belief so strongly that, despite all the refuting evidence, you refused to believe otherwise?

Bigfoot. Aliens. The Loch Ness Monster. There are all sorts of creatures out there that people buy into. While many of us see them as myth, there are many still who are rabid followers, chasing after any clues and signs.

Once in a while, something new pops up. A photo reveals a hazy shape off in the distance. Someone claims they saw a strange creature while hiking in the forest. A group of people hear unusual noises. When questionable evidence comes up, many people jump to the same conclusion every time: they were right all along.

However, there are few stories that have shared the same mystique as the legend behind the Hope Diamond.

The Curse of the Hope Diamond

In the mid-1600s, a French merchant name Jean-Baptiste Tavernier traveled to India, where he discovered a beautiful, vibrant blue 115-carat diamond. According to legend, he stole it off the eye of a Hindu god. In retaliation, the temple priests laid a curse on whoever possessed the diamond.

Tavernier returned to France, where he sold the blue diamond to King Louis XIV. Afterward, he allegedly met his fate by being “torn apart by wolves”. The stone was eventually passed down to King Louis XVI, who was guillotined alongside his wife Marie Antoinette.

The “French blue”, as it was called, went missing for a number of years after the French Revolution. Around 1830, it reemerged in the collection of Henry Philip Hope, where the diamond gets its name.

Hope’s heir Francis Hope eventually went bankrupt and was forced to sell his possessions, including the diamond. He and his wife May Yohé divorced, and Yohé underwent a number of disastrous marriages before dying penniless.

The Hope Diamond then reached the jeweler Pierre Cartier in 1910. Cartier sold it in 1911 to Edward and Evalyn Walsh McLean, American heir and heiress. Of their four children, two died prematurely. Their first son died in a car accident and their daughter died at 25 from a drug overdose. Edward left Evalyn for someone else, and later died in a sanitarium. The family newspaper, The Washington Post, became bankrupt.

In 1947, the McLean collection was sold to Harry Winston, who took the Hope Diamond on a tour around the U.S. and had the bottom recut. In 1958, he sent the 45.52-carat diamond through the mail to the Smithsonian Institution as a donation. His hopes were to establish a national gem collection.

Today, an admiring public continues to view the stone in its glass case.

Curse or Confirmation?

In the 19th and 20th century, newspapers started to report the mishaps of those who came in contact with the diamond. An article appeared in 1908 in the The Washington Post titled “Hope Diamond Has Brought Trouble To All Who Have Owned It.”

Countless articles laid out the fates of those unfortunate enough to come in contact with the diamond. Stories ranged from a stone polisher later tortured in prison to the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who was deposed in 1908.Some tales were fanciful, others were simple, but all were tragic.

The story of the Hope Diamond is bleak. Throughout its existence in human history, patterns re-emerge of bankruptcy, violence, and death. If anything, the fate of its owners is everything but hopeful.

Still, one can’t help but wonder: Is there really a curse?

While some accounts are verifiable, such as the fates of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the McLean family, others seem speculative. For instance, the diamond stolen off the statue of a Hindu god and its resulting curse are most likely inventions by newspapers to generate hype. It’s also dubious whether the diamond was owned by those who fell under its curse, such as the sultan and the stone polisher.

Then there are other stories that are downright false. The original finder, Tavernier, was not “torn apart by wolves” but died of natural causes at age 84.

Finally, there are the untold stories. The stories that, when looked at closely, paint a different picture. While Francis Hope did go bankrupt, he and his wife lived lavishly without any regard to their finances.

Many stories gloss over the happier fates of others, such as Pierre Cartier and Harry Winston, who were renowned jewelers and lived until age 86 and 83 respectively. And the Smithsonian Museum? Since the diamond has gone on public display, it has become the premier exhibit, attracting millions of visitors and increased revenue.

Why We Believe the Unbelievable

In what is known as confirmation bias, we tend to interpret information in a way that confirms our beliefs. If we have a strong view of how something works, we’ll pick out details and facts that prove rather than disprove our perceptions.

Part of the reason why newspapers sold the idea of a curse so strongly was to create intrigue around the diamond, resulting in newspaper sales. But the other part is that, similar to other myths and legends, we simply want to believe.

As humans, we are wired to tie up loose ends. Open-hanging threads, whether it’s never knowing what happened to a missing person we loved or waiting to hear back from an interview, can drive us crazy if there is no resolution.

So we group facts together to fit a belief. We observe random data and then ascribe patterns. We put information in neat, tidy boxes, complete with explanations. We ascribe meaning to things that might not have significance.

While this practice is harmless at times, our tendency to form patterns can lead us to make some strange or dangerous explanations for why certain events happen. These explanations eventually become beliefs.

Once they do, it’s hard to shake them off. If anything, we go searching for more clues just to show that we were right.

Confirmation Bias in Everyday Life

We carry around certain beliefs that color our perception of how things work or how people act. We might suffer from confirmation bias because we don’t want to change our thinking.

Let’s say you are paranoid of others. You call up a friend who you haven’t spoken to in ages. She’s in the middle of doing dishes and can’t talk. Whatever the reason, you conclude that your friend is brushing you off.

In other cases, confirmation bias can be used to prevent change. If you’re a coffee fanatic, you might pick out articles and research that tout the benefits of drinking coffee, while dismissing the ones that warn of its negative side effects. This way, you can keep your current lifestyle, free of guilt.

Sometimes, we rely on confirmation bias to be the same as everyone else. When everyone thinks something is a great idea, you start to look at the positives and convince yourself that what everyone else is saying is true.

If you were living during the era of the Gold Rush, you might focus only on the stories of people who struck gold and returned safe and sound. In the process, you discard the stories of the misfortunes, the mishaps, and countless others who left empty-handed.

We go to great lengths to hold on our views. Even if our current habits are harmful, we use certain phrases and thoughts to convince ourselves that we can keep repeating the same patterns. We might lie to ourselves just to keep eating the same foods, stay in a toxic relationship, or blame others for our problems.

Letting Go of Old Views

It takes strength to change our beliefs.

It means looking at our thought patterns, and then considering why they might not be the case. For instance, if you think people are always trying to harm you, it’s hard to remember the times when someone helped you out, or that people are more focused on fixing their dilemmas than hurting others.

To reduce confirmation bias, we need to become more open-minded to other points of view. We need to encourage conversations that spark debate. We need to delve deep into important topics.

By being aware of our tendencies, we can reconsider long-held beliefs. We can practice informed decision making and draw well-rounded conclusions. We can make progress, knowing that we have considered all perspectives.

Originally published on Medium.

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