Murder Your Darlings
Confirmation Bias (Part 2)
In the previous chapter, we met the father of all fallacies, the confirmation bias. Here are a few examples of it: We are forced to establish beliefs about the world, our lives, the economy, investments, our careers, and more. We deal mostly in assumptions, and the more nebulous these are, the stronger the confirmation bias. Whether you go through life believing that “people are inherently good” or “people are inherently bad,” you will find daily proof to support your case. Both parties, the philanthropists and the misanthropes, simply filter disconfirming evidence (evidence to the contrary) and focus on the do-gooders and dictators who support their worldviews.
Astrologers and economists operate on the same principle. They utter prophecies so vague that any event can substantiate them: “In the coming weeks you will experience sadness,” or “In the medium term, the pressure on the dollar will increase.” But what is the medium term? What will cause the dollar to depreciate? And depreciation measured against what—gold, yen, pesos, wheat, residential property in Manhattan, the average price of a hot dog?
Religious and philosophical beliefs represent an excellent breeding ground for the confirmation bias. Here, in soft, spongy terrain, it grows wild and free. For example, worshippers always find evidence for God’s existence, even though he never shows himself overtly—except to illiterates in the desert and in isolated mountain villages. It is never to the masses in, say, Frankfurt or New York. Counterarguments are dismissed by the faithful, demonstrating just how powerful the confirmation bias is.
No professionals suffer more from the confirmation bias than business journalists. Often, they formulate an easy theory, pad it out with two or three pieces of “evidence,” and call it a day. For example: “Google is so successful because the company nurtures a culture of creativity.” Once this idea is on paper, the journalist corroborates it by mentioning a few other prosperous companies that foster ingenuity. Rarely does the writer seek out disconfirming evidence, which in this instance would be struggling businesses that live and breathe creativity or, conversely, flourishing firms that are utterly uncreative. Both groups have plenty of members, but the journalist simply ignores them. If he or she were to mention just one, the story line would be ruined.
Self-help and get-rich-quick books are further examples of blinkered storytelling. Their shrewd authors collect piles of proof to pump up the most banal of theories, such as “meditation is the key to happiness.” Any reader seeking disconfirming evidence does so in vain: Nowhere in these books do we see people who lead fulfilled lives without meditation, or those who, despite meditation, are still sad.
The Internet is particularly fertile ground for the confirmation bias. To stay informed, we browse news sites and blogs, forgetting that our favored pages mirror our existing values, be they liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between. Moreover, a lot of sites now tailor content to personal interests and browsing history, causing new and divergent opinions to vanish from the radar altogether. We inevitably land in communities of like-minded people, further reinforcing our convictions—and the confirmation bias.
Literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch had a memorable motto: “Murder your darlings.” This was his advice to writers who struggled with cutting cherished but redundant sentences. Quiller-Couch’s appeal is not just for hesitant hacks but for all of us who suffer from the deafening silence of assent. To fight against the confirmation bias, try writing down your beliefs—whether in terms of worldview, investments, marriage, health care, diet, career strategies—and set out to find disconfirming evidence. Axing beliefs that feel like old friends is hard work but imperative.