Counteracting the confirmation bias: 4 ways to see the truth

Posted by on Apr 28, 2013 in Buddhism | 568 Comments

I was listening to a podcast recently about how people make decision. One of the points that caught my attention was the confirmation bias.

This is the idea that we actively search out evidence and opinions that confirm what we already believe. We also filter out opinions and evidence that undermine what we believe. In this way, we plod along, safe in the knowledge that what we think is true, is pretty much true.

When we’re trying to shore up our fragile sense of self, this is a reasonable way to go about things. But when we’re trying to make good decisions, this can be a real hindrance to getting the results we’re looking for in our life.

Karmic view

Buddhism takes this idea one step further.

According to Buddhism, we’re reborn in a certain form because of our past actions. This primarily means actions in our minds, but that flows out into actions of speech and behaviour too.

By the time we’re born, we literally can’t perceive a whole bunch of things that are there. We don’t even have the sensory faculties.

Take ultrasonic frequencies or infrared. They exist. They can be measured by equipment. Some species can perceive them. Humans can’t.

Dogs only see in black and white, but they pick up seven times as much with their nose as we do.

Getting more subtle, what we notice and don’t notice is also to do with our conditioning. Some of it in this lifetime, and maybe some of it from previous lifetimes.

Have you ever noticed how when you get a new car, all of a sudden you see that make and model all over the place?

I remember when my friends got to the age where they were getting pregnant. I had previously lived in a world pretty much devoid of pregnant women. All of a sudden, they were all over the place!

Counteracting the confirmation bias

Once we realise that this is in play in our lives, we may want to do something about it, in an effort to live more in line with how things actually are.

We can’t do much about our sensory limitations, but we can do something about the limitations of our mind.

1. Mindfulness practice is amazing in this regard. By sitting in formal meditation on a regular basis, we start to train the mind to see what’s there, rather than just what we’ve already decided is there. It’s a fascinating experience.

2. The practice of cultivating universal loving-kindness is also designed to open us up to reality. Try walking down the street and not just noticing people you find attractive, or things that you find pleasant to behold. See if you can broaden out your appreciation and positive response for all shapes and sizes of being. (Note: this can be a great way to get over fear of spiders, mice and other beings you happen to get freaked out by).

3. Read stuff you know you won’t agree with from time to time. See if you can get an appreciation for where the author is coming from. They probably think they’re sensible and speaking the truth. They probably have a bunch of people that agree with them on this. Can you get past your own point of view and see it from their perspective for a moment?

4. When you get in an argument, don’t try to win. There’s a story about a bunch of monks going to the Buddha and telling him that there were people in the local area saying that he was not a moral person and that his monks were not good monks. They asked him what they should do. “First,” he replied, “you should consider whether or not this is true.”


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