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OnWords: 'Confirmation Bias'

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The term “confirmation bias” has come to the fore recently, describing everything from the publication of scientific papers to polls of public opinion. 

Briefly stated, “confirmation bias” is the tendency to only accept new information that supports what we already think. Gen X-ers like me, for example, might be inclined to believe any study indicating that Baby Boomers are self-centered, that Millennials are entitled, or that only the unsophisticated don’t like craft beer. 

In science, confirmation bias often comes in the form of fudged study results, in which researchers select data or use statistical analysis in such a way that supports their hypothesis—no matter what the actual results may be. 

Clearly, this is unethical. But scientists sometimes do this because they know that studies showing positive results are more likely to be published—and the academic careers of many scientists rely on being published. This also shows an overall confirmation bias in the academic journals that publish study results. 

The rest of us may show confirmation bias for a variety of reasons. We agree with information that reinforces the beliefs we share with a religious, professional, or political group we’re a part of. Or we might seek out familiar information because it makes us feel safer in the face of uncertainty.

That the term “confirmation bias” is now being used more widely, though, indicates that we are, on the whole, becoming more aware of the various ways we’re fooling ourselves. 

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.