Alternative Facts And The Role Of Evolution: Insights into the Confirmation Bias

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Have you ever read an article and wondered- how can someone find these arguments rational? How do people believe and support political leaders or certain issues, based on no ‘credible’ information? Most of us believe that our beliefs and opinions are a result of an objective analysis of information, and are, therefore, rational and logical. However, we all are susceptible to a perplexing problem, called confirmation bias, that roots in the evolutionary process.

A Stanford study, conducted in 1979, best catalogs this phenomenon. Researchers invited a group of students who had opposing views on capital punishment. The subjects were exposed to two purported studies, one seemingly confirming and one seemingly disconfirming their existing beliefs about the deterrent efficacy of the death penalty. As predicted, both proponents and opponents of capital punishment rated those results and procedures that confirmed their own beliefs, to be the more convincing ones, and reported corresponding shifts in their beliefs as the various results and procedures were presented. The effect of this evaluation and subsequent opinion shifts was an increase in polarization of attitude.

This experiment brought to light the confirmation bias- a cognitive bias resulting in the tendency of people to favour evidence that supports their claim and deny evidence that refutes their position. Our opinions and attitudes are based on information that supports our pre-existing ideas (mostly inherited from those prevalent in society), and dismissing information that challenges these ideas. It affects how we make our decisions, and is especially assumed to play a major role in the current socio-political climate. Hence, whether a supporter or a non-supporter, a person will use evidence that supports their own position and overlook or discount any conflicting evidence, however credible it may be.

As people fall victim to this bias, the progress of society in solving complex socio-political issues risks being thwarted. This can be seen in the new movements, such as the Anti-Vaxxers Movement, rapidly gaining strength worldwide, as well as the increasingly partisan political situation at play in recent times.

At this point, one may ask - what purpose does this cognitive bias serve, if not intellectually, and why does it persist? For this, the answer has to be viewed from a social, interactionist perspective. Many studies have confirmed that reasoning is an adaptive function of ‘Hyper-sociability’; it is an evolved trait, much like three-colour vision, or bipedalism. Living in hunter-gatherer groups, our ancestors had to ensure they were not being taken advantage of by being put in more dangerous situations than the rest. Therefore, their social standing played an important role in survival, which depended more on winning arguments than reasoning correctly. Cognitive Scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber claimed that: “Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.”

The confirmation bias also contains a physiological component- a ‘rush’ of Dopamine, resulting in feelings of pleasure, when provided information favourable to the existing beliefs. Hence, most may choose to remain blind to weaknesses in their arguments, while being particularly proficient in finding out weaknesses in others’ arguments.

The rise of ‘alternative facts’ is symbolic of a more polarized and close-minded society, overcome by a strong confirmation bias. Hence, consciously consuming unbiased media has become essential for the maintenance of a democratic, progressive, modern society. Recognition and acknowledgement of these cognitive biases can help make people aware of their entrenched opinions and attempt to eliminate them. It would enable us to make better, rational judgements based on facts. While these measures might help in reducing these biases, research studies conclude it is no Panacea.

A friendly reminder: We've done our research, but you should too! Check our sources against your own and always exercise sound judgment.

Recognizing and reducing cognitive bias in ... - NCBI - NIH 


About The Author

Ragini Narang,

Guest Author (New Delhi, India)

Ragini Narang has her academic interests lying in the intersection of psychology and neuroscience. A passionate advocate of mental health and its awareness, she also finds herself intrigued by its sociopolitical dimensions. She aims to integrate psychology within the realms of society at large through her inclination towards public policy and has worked with numerous NGOs for the causes of social welfare and upliftment. She considers herself an 'avid observer, looking for the unconventional in the mundane'.

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