Confirmation Bias

When we think of bias in research, we often think of bias as something that exists in the researchers and publishers of medical research. But that’s not the only kind of research we should be aware of! Confirmation Bias is a special kind of bias that effects YOU. And time you’re interacting with research, you need to be conscious of confirmation bias and be thinking of ways to counteract it.

There are three main ways confirmation bias might be influencing how you interact with research:

How you look for research

It’s a question I get often from doulas, midwives and childbirth educators who know I have a special interest in research. And it’s the wrong question! In this example, looking only for information that confirms what you want research to show is a definite bias. A better question would be:

How you interpret research

The human brain has a tendency to easily accept the things that agree with your previous held beliefs, and reject things that conflict with those beliefs. This is called anchoring. If you believe strongly in placenta encapsulation, when you read a study on that topic, you’re more likely to nod with acceptance while reading a study on it. What you won’t be doing is looking for flaws in methodology or leaps of logic in statistical application.

On the flip side, if you think home birth is dangerous, you’re going to give a study on the safety of home birth extra scrutiny and perhaps magnify issues you find to invalidate the study in your mind.

A word about cognitive dissonance

When you learn something that doesn’t fit with your own beliefs, and yet you know that information is true, it creates a conflict in your mind. That conflict is called cognitive dissonance. People handle this very differently. Some people are able to shift their world view, reject parts of their previous beliefs, and evolve and integrate. Others resist and their brains treat new information as a threat, rejecting it. If you find yourself having a strong reaction to new information, you are probably experiencing cognitive dissonance. It can take effort to be willing to sit with that feeling and carefully examine both the new information and your own beliefs but it is worth the effort.

How you remember research

There is a lot of research out there. It’s hard to remember it all! But research studies do need to be viewed in the context of all the research on a topic. Confrmation bias causes strong responses, both positive and negative, that may make it hard for you to view a cohesive body of research, or to see any places where the studies agree. You may find that the only thing you remember about a study is a black and white categorization of “good study” or “bad study”.

So what do I do about it?

I’ll address this in my next article! Watch for it in about a week!

I was inspired to write this article by Nir Eyal and Lakshmi Mani, who wrote this excellent piece on Confirmation Bias and Why You Make Terrible Life Choices. I adapted their concepts to the birth research realm.