Confirmation bias is simple wishful thinking. When people had a particular strongly held belief in their mind before examining some new evidence, the new evidence only serves to confirm their pre-existing belief. This distorts the way that they perceive situations, because they may approach things differently. Once this belief has been instilled, they may also reject or ignore information that is presented against their view. Religion is a prime example of this. To some deeply entrenched folks all the scientific achievements of humanity has only served to further glorify the image of God. By ignoring the evidence, they can continue holding their belief as being true.
People who struggle with anxiety are highly susceptible to confirmation bias in their day-to-day lives. They create fictional scenarios in their own mind and then these become reality. Someone with low self-esteem may feel that people do not like them or that they have nothing of value to offer in a relationship. As a result, they constantly be on edge, looking for evidence that people do not like them. They will have trouble creating new connections and forming relationships, simply because they misinterpret signals and distort them, so it seems like people do not like them. In this way, they isolate themselves. They may think that other people are neglecting them or ignoring them, but the reality is that they are distancing themselves from others because of their low self-esteem.
In most self-help and personal developments books available on the market, confirmation bias happens when the reader takes all the information to be true and refuses to hear an argument against it. For example, they may try to be ‘happier’ by forcing themselves to think positively about every situation. This could include feeling that a loved one has escaped pain when they die or that they were passed over for a promotion because the universe didn’t think they could handle it or that “it just wasn’t the right time”. They look for the silver lining in everything, despite the evidence that looking at life through these rose-tinted glasses can lead to depression and an inability to adapt to obstacles that may arise in life.
A major problem is that once people fall into the habit of confirmation bias and self-deception, it is hard for them to shape a new reality. They fall into the same habits and the same cycles, holding themselves back from change and holding themselves back from success in their goals. In some situations, this deception can be a good thing. For example, people with cancer might benefit themselves by believing they will better, because this calming deception helps lower stress hormones and actually gives the body a better shot at healing.
Another way to describe confirmation bias is as a way to fulfil your beliefs. People do not inherently want to be wrong—the human ego makes many of us defend our opinions deeply. While there are some critical thinkers that may be swayed by a new perspective or evidence on the subject, most people do not want to consider anything that could make them wrong.
Another example of this occurs when people are reporting on a crime. After something happens, police interview witnesses separately so they are not influenced by what other people believe about the situation. Everything that happens around us is a matter of perception. One person may have seen the crime from a different perspective than another, so they have different information. It is by piecing together this information that police get the whole story, because each witness will have perceived what happened in a different way.
Self-help sometimes has success because of this confirmation bias. Once people start following something like the law of attraction, they are going to be highly alert to the things around them that are going to fulfil that bias. They may give the universe credit for different things that happen to them, believing that the universe or prayer or whatever they believe in is working, because they are looking for signs that it is working and shutting out anything that goes against these ideas. This is counter productive to the person’s own abilities in the long run.