This is a continuation from last week’s blog: Intention, Reception, and Reality. You may want to revisit that post to become familiar with the situation that has evolved into this week’s topic.
I am going to begin tackling something that has shaped the way some educators approach change, new initiatives, or sadly, students. I’m going to talk about something that I believe is running rampant among society. I am going to get real about experiences I have had in my life; the good, the bad, the ugly. It’s not to point the finger at anyone, it is simply to raise awareness to a phenomenon that is destroying humanity. What’s worse is that it is quite avoidable with some effort. Unfortunately, we have seen society transition into being most comfortable on the path of least resistance.
Confirmation bias is something that I have talked about for years without realizing that it actually had a name. And yet the most eye-opening revelation on confirmation bias comes most recently as I experienced in action. Unfortunately, the witnessing of it was due to the insignificant people that I now understand were confirming their own bias.
I talked about when implicit bias becomes explicit bias with Megan Fuciarelli on an episode of Anchored in Education. That probably sounds familiar because I have mentioned my conversation with Megan in other blog posts. I was thinking that confirmation bias was just another name for implicit bias. As it turns out, they are two separate biases (as if we needed another one to worry about), but implicit bias can have a direct impact in our seeking confirmation.
Revisiting John and Mrs. Pout
Last week I introduced two fictional educators. John is a principal who is trying to bring a more appropriate reading curriculum to his building. Mrs. Pout is a veteran teacher who has unfortunately anchored herself in outdated practices. Both are guilty of having confirmation bias. From last week’s blog:
Mrs. Pout’s bias is that administrators are the worst and they don’t really know about teaching. She might even believe they became an administrator because they couldn’t hack it in the classroom. In this scenario, no matter how John presents the information, Mrs. Pout is only hearing one thing: confirmation that all of her thoughts and beliefs on administrators are true.
For John, his bias is that Mrs. Pout is a cantankerous old teacher who is stuck firmly and stubbornly in her ways. No matter how he approaches the situation, he has confirmed in himself that Mrs. Pout will never transition to change and will always be a heel.
Nickerson (1998) stated, “If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the confirmation bias would have to be among the candidates for consideration” (p. 175). Both of our characters have developed a bias of the other. No matter how one responds, the other will only look through their confirmation bias lens to confirm their thoughts and beliefs. In other words, neither John nor Mrs. Pout stands a chance in the other’s eyes.
No matter how great the new curriculum is, John is still an administrator in Mrs. Pout’s eyes. So anything he suggests is self-serving and not in the best interest of the teachers. However he interacts with her, the only way she will receive information is through her skewed perception. She will hear a tone that possibly doesn’t exist. She will hear certain words in his sentences that were never actually said but she will swear she heard. This helps confirm her bias.
John suffers the same fate. He has struggled with Mrs. Pout for quite some time. He has a bias that she is a pouty, cranky, cantankerous old veteran who is demoralizing other staff. Every resistance she takes confirms this bias for John. When in reality, there could be a myriad of things preventing Mrs. Pout from taking the necessary steps to change.
Where Confirmation Bias is Most Prevalent
There is an easy test to see if you’ve ever witnessed confirmation bias. Think back to the start of a school year. Did another teacher see your class list and say, “Oh you have little Timmy? Good luck with him.” That teacher then proceeds to tell you all about how awful Timmy was in their class. They tell you every single behavior incident. Every outburst. Every moment of disrespect. And if that isn’t enough, they begin to give you a brief rundown of the family lineage. What kind of parents they have. What kind of support they are lacking. And it just goes on.
The first days of school come and you convince yourself it is a new year, a new Timmy. You’re going to keep an open mind. But you’re watching Timmy like a hawk. Even if you don’t realize it. Walking in the hall you know there are several students talking not following hallway expectations. You hone in on Timmy though. Without realizing it, your confirmation bias is holding Timmy to a standard that no other student is being held to.
Or maybe you keep an objective lens on the situation with Timmy. Yet anytime there is a hiccup in his behavior there are a host of teachers who are right there in your ear saying, “I told you so.” No matter how you try to redirect the conversation, others who are looking to confirm their bias will only search for evidence that supports their position.
We see confirmation bias in other areas of education as well. From curriculum, to leadership, to teachers, to parents, almost every situation is teeming with opportunities for someone to confirm their bias. What if we truly want to avoid confirmation bias? What do we have to do?
Seek Facts Only
A major problem with confirmation bias is that the facts are left out. Facts tend to paint accurate pictures. Facts are difficult to skew. As I faced insignificant people, I was faced with many claims against my leadership and character. But what struck me the most is how many times I just had to laugh.
If holes can easily be poked into what people are saying, then you’re probably facing a situation in which someone is trying hard to confirm their bias. Seeking facts that are objective is the key. Objective means what is being said is either true, or false. Confirmation seeks subjective facts. This is what the teacher who is telling you about Timmy is doing.
Subjective facts are directly related to confirmation bias because objective facts could potentially derail someone’s bias. Timmy’s outburst could be an anomaly for this year. Maybe it is the first time this month he had an outburst and it came during unstructured time, a time that Timmy has consistently struggled with for years. But that is objective. It’s a clear picture. Seeking to confirm a bias would look at the same picture subjectively. Timmy had an outburst. Timmy had outbursts in the past. Timmy’s behavior has not changed; he is a bad kid.
Narrow-Minded Lens Versus Reality
We can stand next to someone and watch events of something unfold and walk away with completely different interpretations. The pandemic is a great example of this. Watching press conferences, people interpreted what was being said or done in whatever way that best supported their predetermined belief. Let’s make it more specific and pick an aspect of the pandemic: masks.
It didn’t take long before we had maskers and anti-maskers. Any announcement that was made, regardless of the data or scientific evidence presented (or not), was interpreted however it fit into a person’s already scripted narrative. A message being delivered will be lost completely through this sort of interpretation.
Politics in general have become victim to people struggling with confirmation bias. The political arena has become a hotbed for hatred as narrow-minded people refuse to consider anyone’s position but their own. Because of this we have seen a loss of civility as people vehemently argue their bias regardless of factual information or correct interpretations.
No Thanks, I’m Good
Another clear indicator that someone is only serving their confirmation bias is when they refuse to accept anything that could possibly poke holes in their beliefs. We also see this when people select news sources that only align to their point of view. When presented with alternate information that presents a challenge, they block the information.
I have watched many people argue to the point of no turning back no matter how many times they’ve been proven wrong. Conspiracy theorists often fall under this category of confirmation bias. An extreme example would be InfoWars creator Alex Jones, who on a regular basis sickeningly denied the Sandy Hook shooting happened. It wasn’t until faced with multiple lawsuits from parents of the victims did Jones admit, under oath, the deaths occurred.
While Jones as an example may be extreme, it is easy to see how many people block information that does not align with their preconceived thoughts. This creates a dangerous illusion that does not allow us to see both sides of an argument and develop a conclusive thought after facts have been presented.
That’s Not How I Remember It
Another example of confirmation bias is having a selective memory. When a person remembers only the details that support their position, this is confirmation bias. Maybe your boss came and talked to you about a serious performance concern. However, they made a poor choice in body language by keeping their arms crossed in front of them with all their weight shifted to one leg. If your bias is that your boss doesn’t like you and wants to get rid of you, then you will only choose to remember this aspect of the conversation.
To show that confirmation bias can exist anywhere, I can use a humorous example of sports. I’m not necessarily a Bucs fan, but I like Tom Brady. He can throw an interception and the details I will remember is how the receivers failed to run the route correctly or how the offensive linemen failed to pick up the blitz, rushing poor Tom to make a throw. The same goes for those who can’t stand Tom Brady. Every touchdown he throws they can only remember deflategate, so he must be finding an advantage because it simply can’t be skill.
While this is a humorous example, confirmation bias is rarely anything to laugh at. The dangers of confirmation bias is that one quits receiving information that is balanced in sources. Worse yet, confirmation bias causes harm to people. People who are reckless with their bias are doing so with little to no concern about the others who may be impacted.
Confirmation bias is what led me to leave my last position. Insignificant people with selective memories and amazing fact deflectors set out on a quest to confirm their bias. Their quest was self-serving, much of which is slowly being confirmed with each new decision I see. Back in July of 2021 I wrote down a list of predictions. These predictions were what I believed the outcomes would be as a direct result of the confirmation bias of insignificant people. So far, I am two for two.
That’s the problem with confirmation bias. Your actions become predictable because you become obstinate to anything that challenges an already established position. This is what our politics have become. The way we perceive the pandemic. And sadly, how we approach many things in our schools. We need to be aware when we are searching for something to confirm our beliefs rather than searching for the truth. Because if we don’t, we will eventually lose our credibility.