Can “confirmation bias” ever be beneficial?

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is a tendency for individuals pursuing research or debate to (consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously) select evidence and research that promotes their initial arguments and inclinations.

In other words, instead of pursuing genuine, open and honest research and formulating a sincere conclusion based on the evidence amassed, “confirmation bias” tells us that we have a tendency to begin with our conclusion and end with a selective research methodology that explains why our conclusions are valid.

Standard research methodology: (1) Research > (2) Conclusion

Confirmation bias: (1) Conclusion > (2) Research


Disadvantages of confirmation bias

1. In research, it creates a disingenuous research culture, placing personal objectives in front of research objectives

2. In individuals, it fosters a tendency to “argue for the sake of arguing”

3. In communities, it encourages more polarised views, focusing on differences instead of similarities


Can confirmation bias ever be beneficial?

During an interesting conversation on research methodology with ARAB follower Bastiaan Brak, I was made aware of an extremely interesting argument I had never considered before. Bastiaan believed that confirmation bias can sometimes be beneficial insofar as the desire to promote our ideas can provide incentive for us to dig and find very specific, miniscule research to defend our views during discussion. Some of these findings may not have been considered by more neutral researchers.

Of course, this argument assumes that, for the most-part, humans are generally egoist in nature. When pride is at stake, confirmation bias creates big enough incentive for us to find more and more research to come up on top. A lot of people don’t like U-turning on their positions, even though this sincerity in research should often be admired!

(Edit: Another point to consider is that confirmation bias helps with time-management; having no focus and trying to be as unbiased as possible in your research may lead your work off in a different direction that renders your research almost a wasted venture.)


How to approach confirmation bias

Clearly, of course, the disadvantages listed above outweigh the advantages I can think of for the time-being. Therefore, I have come to a particular way of approaching research in order to optimise the use of “confirmation bias”.

The idea is to blend both neutral and biased research. One should pursue research in a way that considers all arguments – so from a top-level view, the research is “neutral”. But during particular discussions on the “for” or “against” part, it is a good idea to consciously apply confirmation bias.

Deliberately put yourself in the fight-or-flight mindset to try to elevate the particular position being considered. This will help you sift through, prioritise and articulate very particular pieces of evidence in an extremely productive manner that benefits the research community. Then, when you reach your concluding part, you can apply these individual “confirmation biases” in a very level-headed, top-level way once more, neutrally weighing them out.

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