Have you ever scoffed at information only to find out later it was true? Ever unfollowed someone on social media because you couldn’t stand their politics? You were influenced by two mental processes that shape how people understand the world and each other (or not) – confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.
Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias (or unconscious way of thinking). It predisposes people to accept information that supports their worldview while discounting information that doesn’t.
As a result, someone who tends to have more liberal views might accept information showing that immigration is good for America and reject any information to the contrary. The opposite would be true of someone with more right-leaning beliefs.
Confirmation bias causes people to become more entrenched in their views. When presented with information that contradicts their beliefs, instead of evaluating it with an open mind, people often discount it or argue it away.
In an experiment out of Duke University, only one in five people changed their opinions when presented with conflicting evidence. Participants also rated information affirming their beliefs more highly than contradictory information.
Confirmation Bias in Politics
Confirmation bias, with the rise of less objective media outlets and social media, has led to an increasing divide in public opinion. People can actively unfollow or turn off information sources that conflict with their viewpoints.
Confirmation bias also makes it harder for people with differing views to have polite conversations about the hot-button topics of the day. When both parties discount information offered by the other, no one is listening and tempers can rise quickly.
This can lead people to make decisions that fail to take all the relevant information into account. Political leaders aren’t exempt from this tendency. A representative who strongly believes that war is the best way to resolve international conflict may discount more valuable information.
It also impacts political messaging. Since politicians are invested in being popular, they tend to emphasize information their constituents will agree with, instead of presenting a more complex view of the issues.
Confirmation bias also affects voters. People who fail to consider both sides of an issue will always make biased decisions. They may support candidates who tell them what they want to hear, instead of voting for those telling the truth.
Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort people have when asked to believe two ideas that contradict one another.
Most people seek to avoid it to such an extent that they often reframe events or facts in order to retain their equilibrium.
One strategy is to disregard the conflicting information (use confirmation bias).
People may also compartmentalize the information, effectively sticking it in a mental attic where it’s difficult to find.
Another common reaction to cognitive dissonance is to project the discomfort outwards as anger.
Cognitive Dissonance in Politics
Cognitive dissonance is what causes most people to avoid conversations about politics altogether. How can immigrants be taking jobs away from Americans and good for the economy? Better not to talk about it. As a result, people prefer to talk about politics only with others who will agree with them. This leads to increased social division.
Cognitive dissonance is a factor that keeps people in controlling cults. It’s painful and difficult for people to admit they were tricked by a con artist, so they ignore any evidence the leader is not who he seems.
This can also be true of attitudes towards political leaders. Supporters may choose to ignore lying or other bad behavior in order to preserve their initial opinion of the politician. Many people will double-down on their beliefs rather than admit their devotion was misplaced.
Watch Season 4 - Episode 7 Politics, Mind Control & Brainwashing, and Joining a Cult with Gregg Hurwitz
Confirmation Bias and Cognitive Dissonance in Action
It doesn’t take someone with a Ph.D. in Psychology to see how confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance work together. One could say that cognitive dissonance causes confirmation bias.
They are both behind people unfollowing friends with different political opinions on social media, and seeking out news stories that confirm their beliefs. They both make it difficult for people to change their minds about an issue, or even to listen to someone with an opposing viewpoint.
They are also at the root of the increasing political polarization of this country.
Cognitive dissonance makes it more comfortable to consume media that fits a particular worldview. As a result, news outlets that tilt news coverage in a certain direction get higher ratings, which makes the outlets more likely to keep coverage biased.
Confirmation bias then leads people to discount information from unfamiliar news outlets. A 2020 PEW Research survey found that 67% of self-identified Conservatives distrusted CNN and 70% of self-identified Liberals distrusted Fox News.
Consequently, most Americans consume very different news. This divide makes some people so uncomfortable that attempts are sometimes made to shut down debate and silence people with opposing views completely. Some politicians are currently advocating for more regulation of speech and even banning certain media outlets, raising important questions about free speech in this country.
Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias have also led to increased divisions between political leaders. In fact, the House of Representatives has become more divided and less cooperative since the 1980s. There are many news stories of stalemates in government from passing budgets to electing a new House speaker.
These disagreements are having an impact. American confidence in the government is an at all-time low. Only 26% of participants in a 2023 PEW Research survey viewed Congress favorably. But confirmation bias remains prevalent. In the same survey, 70% of Republicans said the Biden administration is doing too little to cooperate and 71% of Democrats said the Republicans are not cooperative enough.
Overcoming Confirmation Bias and Cognitive Dissonance
The first step in overcoming these cognitive distortions is awareness. Once people are aware the problem exists, they are more likely to notice these influences in themselves and others.
It’s also vital for people to look for information from a wide variety of sources. This way, people can begin to form a more complete understanding of current affairs. Seeking out more objective voices that actively try to examine issues from both sides is also helpful.
Next, it’s imperative for Americans to talk to each other rationally about politics. Stephen Covey’s 5th habit in his popular book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People comes into play here. First seek to understand, then to be understood.
Stanford associate professor of psychology Jamil Zaki recommends using curiosity in difficult conversations. In the podcast The Happiness Lab Zaki explained that instead of focusing on the validity of the issues, it’s better to ask others how they came to their conclusions. This emphasizes people’s life experiences, diffuses arguments, and helps people understand one another better.
It's also important for political leaders to reach across the aisle and begin cooperating with one another more. With such low confidence in the government, smart politicians will see that Americans are tired of the divisiveness in the current political climate and adopt a different approach.
Citizens can also demand a certain standard of behavior from their own groups. When people stop accepting divisiveness, change is possible.
H2: The Takeaway
Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to dismiss information before trying to understand it. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort people feel with faced with contradictory information. They influence people in unexpected ways, but they don’t have to continue to divide us.
The next time you hear a crazy fact, instead of dismissing it, ask to find out more. And when your annoying friend posts something on social media that makes your blood boil, consider reading the content, or even better, picking up the phone and having a conversation. By making different choices, we can begin to build bridges across the gaps that divide us.