According to Litvak & Lerner (n.d.) of Carnegie Mellon University, “A cognitive bias is any systematic deviation from a normative criterion that affects thinking, often leading to errors in judgment.” That is a generic definition; there are many specific forms of cognitive bias that affect thinking in particular ways. In this instance, the particular form of cognitive bias that may be affecting the mentioned friend is one where one’s judgement relies on bad information. He’s come up with his answer before researching the subject fully, then – because he’s found sufficient information on the web to support that idea – he may have been blinded to the fact that there may be a greater weight of evidence out there supporting a different view entirely.
In the process of research, cognitive bias must always be watched for, to avoid misleading results arising from using source data unfairly weighted one way or another.
According to an article on the Science Daily website (n.d.), this form of cognitive bias is called “Confirmation bias”. The article describes it as: “a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.” An example could be where if someone were researching the topic of gun control, they would focus on sources supporting their own pre-existing attitudes and to unconsciously interpret possibly ambiguous data as supporting their already decided position. Another example given by Litvak & Lerner was a teacher asking students the question:
“Is the Mississippi River shorter or longer than 5,000 miles?” Although it’s actually about 3700 miles, by asking the question as it was phrased, the students were likely to base answers on a false reference datum of 5,000 miles.
Bell (n.d.), on the Psychology and Society website, cites examples of confirmation bias:
1. An employer interviewing an applicant for a job – having decided that person is very intelligent – he may only digest information consistent with that preconceived opinion.
2. A reporter writing an article may exclusively interview “experts” who are known to support the reporter’s own views on the topic or issue.
Pagliarini (2010) published an article entitled “Five Tips to Avoid Confirmation Bias”. They are paraphrased here as they may help the friend reconsider his situation and in the end produce a better and more balanced dissertation as a result.
3. Put away your ego: None of us likes to be proved wrong, so our egos tell us to look for confirmation of our ideas/views/thoughts from others. Resist that tendency if the truth is more important than being right.
4. Actively look for disagreement: Don’t ask others “Am I right?” – challenge them instead to say why you’re actually wrong. You may have to be persistent; it’s not in people’s nature to tell a friend or colleague that they’re wrong.
5. Make your questions better: Don’t ask loaded questions like “How good is this?” A much better question would be: “How can I do this better?”
6. Keep looking for answers: Don’t stop looking for other opinions and views from all sources just because you think you already know what the right answer is.
7. Search better: Instead of asking Google for answers to the question(s) you’d like to prove, try looking for the unbiased views on the subject.
Bell, Brad. Confirmation Bias. Psychology and Society. Retrieved 7 May, 2012 from http://www.psychologyandsociety.com/confirmationbias.html
Litvak, Paul, M. & Lerner, Jennifer, S. Cognitive Bias. Oxford Companion to the Affective Sciences. Retrieved 7 May, 2012 from http://content.ksg.harvard.edu/lernerlab/papers/files/cognitive%20bias%20oxford
Pagliarini, Robert. (2010). Five Tips to Avoid Confirmation Bias. Retrieved 7 May, 2012 from http://www.ihavenet.com/Entrepreneur-Five-Tips-to-Avoid-Confirmation-Bias-RP.html
Science Daily. Confirmation bias. Retrieved 7 May, 2012 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/c/confirmation_bias.htm