Where do our beliefs and opinions come from? If you’re like most people, you truly believe that your convictions are rational, logical, and impartial based on years of experience and objective analysis of the information you have available. In reality, all of us are subject to a human tendency known as “confirmation bias”.
Confirmation bias is the propensity to interpret new information as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. We subconsciously search for evidence in the world that supports our beliefs. We also subconsciously eliminate evidence that proves our beliefs wrong. The human brain is trying to protect us, protect our ego. It feels great to be right, it makes us feel confirmed, confident and in control. But if it goes unexamined, confirmation bias can often hinder us and negatively affect our decision making process.
A big part of my coaching practice is helping clients question their current belief systems and be willing to see themselves as being wrong, even though it feels terrible in the moment, so they can enjoy the benefit of having the changed belief in the long run. We are constantly trying to prove true what we believe. So, if you believe that you are not smart enough, that you don’t do well on job interviews, or you cannot lose weight [insert your own limiting self belief], you will look at your life and find lots of evidence for that being true. That doesn’t make it true. That just makes it a confirmation bias that you have been constantly searching to prove true. That is why two different people can see different realities based on the same set of facts. For example, a person who had a traumatic childhood can see herself as a survivor who is strong and perseveres. Another person with the same experience can identify as a victim who people are out to get, and thus feels disempowered in life.
When I work with clients that have never examined what they believe, they don’t even know the recurring thoughts that are driving their confirmation bias. They just think that’s the way the world is, or the way they are. What I help my clients is see that what they have been thinking and proving true to themselves their whole lives is not necessarily true and they don’t have to keep believing that if it is not serving them in life.
The difficulty with confirmation bias is that facts don’t change our beliefs. Even where there is plentiful evidence to prove our belief wrong, our brain will dismiss it as an exception. We are unwilling to change our beliefs because often that requires changing our identity, which we naturally resist. With confirmation bias we believe something so deeply that facts to the contrary do not help change our mind about it. The only way to change a belief is a conscious decision to do so.
However, reinterpreting reality is exhausting. Our underlying current of thought has become habitual in a way that takes very little energy from us. Changing our beliefs requires a lot of energy and discomfort. This is true even when our beliefs don’t serve us and we want more than anything to change our reality. Changing belief systems is the exact opposite of what our brain would like to naturally do.
If we don’t question what we believe, we become prisoners of our assumptions. Are you willing to be wrong about everything? How committed are you to not believing certain thoughts about yourself? How committed are you to the beliefs that you were taught when you were young and never stopped believing?
When you are trying to change your belief system from, “I can’t do this” to “There is a possibility I can do this”, or “I will always be overweight” to “There is a possibility I can lose weight”, you would think that would be easy, right? You’d think, “This new belief is so much better, I want to believe in it. Why can’t I?” The reason is because your brain sees it as a threat to all of the knowledge it has already accumulated and proven true. Understanding that is really important because you can have compassion for yourself when you are trying to change. We genuinely enjoy confirmation even if the belief feels terrible and hurts.
When you accept that the brain feels threatened when certainty is questioned, you understand that you would rather be right and in pain than wrong and vulnerable. Human beings are best at interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact. This is great if your prior conclusions are awesome. Not so great if your prior conclusions are terrible. Be willing to be wrong about you. Be willing to let go of the beliefs that are no longer serving you.
Every day you go out in the world looking for evidence to prove it true. If you want to change, you need to understand your confirmation bias and put effort into changing what your default thinking is. Your new focused thinking will take more work. You will initially resist it. But eventually, your deliberate thought will become your new belief system. And then your confirmation bias work be to your advantage as your brain will be looking for evidence to confirm beliefs that are serving you and helping you improve your life, as opposed to holding you back.