Seek First to Understand

Confirmation Bias & How to Avoid It

It’s Friday night. You’ve had a difficult week, and you just want to relax at home. So you find yourself scrolling through social media. All is going well until you come across a post by your uncle—that uncle. He shared an article that rails against your favorite politician. What do you do? You can ignore it and keep scrolling. You can engage in debate—but do you really want to ruin your weekend? Or you can honestly consider whether the article has a point.

Exposing the Bias

We’ve all had the uncomfortable experience of coming across information that conflicts with our prior beliefs and commitments. The temptation is to ignore potentially disconfirming evidence and double down on our position. This is what’s called confirmation bias. It’s not a logical fallacy to correct, but rather a psychological proclivity to work against.

Psychological studies confirm that humans have a tendency toward confirmation bias. Many of us like to think we’re not susceptible. It’s all those other people. But when was the last time you listened to the ideas of someone who disagrees with you politically, not just to oppose him, but to hear him out? When was the last time you tried to “steel man” your opponent’s viewpoint (that is, to put it in the best light possible or in its strongest form)?

For me, when I listen to someone who agrees with me, say, on the truth of Christianity, I tend to let my guard down. I exercise a hermeneutic of grace. But with someone I disagree with, I tend to exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion. In other words, I, too, fall prey to confirmation bias. But while confirmation bias is a natural proclivity, it’s also something we can work against.

Avoiding the Bias

Philosopher Mortimer Adler said that one ought to seek to understand a position before criticizing it. This is a good start for avoiding bias. If we cannot accurately explain someone’s position to his satisfaction, then we don’t understand it. In fact, we misrepresent it. But to criticize a misrepresentation as if we’re criticizing the genuine position is to commit the straw man fallacy. So when you come across your uncle’s social-media rant, you should first be sure you understand what he’s saying before considering why you disagree. It may turn out that you agree with him on more than you realized.

Another way to avoid confirmation bias is to stay open to various viewpoints through an honest investigation of the alternatives. When I first started teaching on the moral argument for God’s existence, I believed it wasn’t a good argument. But I decided to keep an open mind. When I was finished teaching it, I was surprised to find that I agreed with the argument. This was satisfying because I believed I’d come to a knowledge of the truth through an honest investigation.

We can also avoid confirmation bias by properly weighing evidence. When looking at evidence that conflicts with what we believe, we’re sometimes tempted to downplay it or put it out of mind. And when evidence confirms what we believe, we might come back to it again and again to shore up our belief. Instead, we need to properly evaluate and account for new evidence, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

Taking Stock

While none of us are above confirmation bias, we can take steps to avoid it: we can seek to understand our opponent’s position, consider a variety of viewpoints, and properly weigh new evidence. So the next time you come across a news article that makes your blood boil, take a breath and consider whether it might have something true to say.

PhD, is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University. He’s passionate about mentoring Christians in the life of the mind.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #69, Summer 2024 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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