How confirmation bias makes it difficult for consumers to engage with your ag messages – and what you can do about it

Cognitive biases are “systematic errors in thinking that affect the decisions and judgments that people make”[1]. With the intent of saving itself time and energy, the brain makes split-second categorizations and decisions based on previous knowledge and experience.

Biases are formed from a variety of information processing shortcuts known as heuristics. These mental shortcuts are how the brain applies the principles of efficiency to cope with the daily onslaught of information, limited processing capabilities, moral motivations, and emotional and social influences.

Of all the cognitive biases humans have, the confirmation bias is one of the strongest.

The most common definition of confirmation bias is a “selective collection of evidence that supports what one already believes while ignoring or rejecting evidence that supports a different conclusion”[2] – or, more simply put, your brain is programmed to seek out information that shores up what it already believes.

Confirmation bias affects how we process information. Our brains typically evaluate information in relation to preestablished beliefs, beliefs that are formed from a variety of factors and influences, like our experiences, upbringing, and other social and cultural influences. Therefore, even if several individuals have the same information, their interpretations will vary.

To complicate matters, several studies have shown that when we receive information that doesn’t fit with a prior decision, the brain essentially tunes out. Our personal, internal echo chambers block out any incoming information that might feel ‘uncomfortable’ or cause the brain to exert too much energy to analyze and categorize.

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 Survival tips

In a world where most people use the internet and social media to conduct research, access news, network, and share opinions (A LOT of opinions!), ‘filter bubbles’ – algorithms which make information that individuals are more likely to agree with prominent while excluding opposing views – act as an amplifier of confirmation bias. So, what does this mean for Canadian agriculture?

Tali Sharot, author of ‘The Influential Mind’, writes that “The further away new data is from one’s established beliefs, the less likely it is to be considered valid. Information is more likely to be accepted when it is consistent with other things that person accepts as true.” Since 98%+ of the population are so far removed from the world of agriculture, there is a lack of personal experiences upon which to form beliefs. The way people discover, interpret, and share information about agriculture will therefore be based on what they read online, which, thanks to algorithms, will present information aligned with their initial query (which will be aligned with their established beliefs and worldviews) with each successive click. The problem is, not everything we read online is true. Coupled with the fact that most people’s belief systems have not been developed to include accurate knowledge about agriculture, we are left with a situation that is ripe for confirmation bias.

To help people (including ourselves!) to overcome confirmation bias, keep these tips in mind:

  • Recognize that even a small change in how a question is worded can affect online search results and, consequently, the conclusions we reach. Our unconscious biases prompt us to enter a search query a certain way; if you’re aware of this brain function ‘flaw’, you can override it (and the algorithms set up to obey your biases’ every whim!) by creating several versions of search queries.

 

  • Research has shown that messages which are inconsistent with an individual’s beliefs are processed less fluently, that is, the brain is less inclined to try to understand. If the information is presented in a smooth, flowing manner, the brain will have little reason to question its authenticity. This is related to the ‘if it rhymes, it will climb’ concept that marketers have been capitalizing on for years. Since rhymes take little effort for the brain to process in terms of fluency (they’re simplified and ‘obvious’), the brain equates ease of comprehension with truth. Fluency also has the effect of making information more memorable. This means, that the next time you’re trying to recall a piece of information related to an issue at hand, that particular piece will present itself front and centre, thereby adding another floor to your confirmation condo.

 

  • For the brain to assess the compatibility of a piece of information with its current knowledge reserve, two high-cost/high-energy actions are involved: motivation and cognitive resources. When we come across a new piece of information, it’s easier to align it – or not – with what we currently assume to be true. If you can introduce elements that will make your information easier to understand (fluency + minimal cognitive resources) and highlight why your listener/reader should be paying attention (motivation), they will be more inclined to engage and learn rather than shrug and rely on their confirmation bias.

 

  • Learn to think critically and help others to think through issues critically. Critical thinking is about being an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information. With any new piece of information, ask yourself the 5 W’s (who, what, when, where, why – and one ‘H’: how) to help broaden your scope of analysis and consideration for the facts by exploring both the pros and the cons.

 

  • Simply by understanding that your brain has an elephant (your unconscious) and a rider (your conscious) – and that the elephant generally dictates where the rider goes – you can make more conscious decisions and control the elephant. Watch this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xKklLplngs to learn more about the elephant/rider analogy.

 

  • Healthy debate generates valuable dialogue. We are all biased to varying extents so when arguing different viewpoints, we need to find ways to engage each other on a constructive level in order to advance the discussion. You can also play devil’s advocate internally with yourself whenever new information arises: question the motivations of its source, question its validity, and look for possible alternatives.

 

  • Be willing to listen to new ideas and perspectives. Worst case scenario, you make your lazy brain exercise a little. Best case, you gain new knowledge that can provide insight into an issue that interests or concerns you.

 

Being aware of the systematic errors in how the human brain receives, processes, stores, and retrieves information will enable you to be better informed and help you make better decisions about issues that could affect you or your family.

 

 

[1] https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-cognitive-bias-2794963

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

Header photo source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xKklLplngs – Thought Monkey, October 25, 2017.

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