Confirmation bias and how to avoid it

Part 2 : Bias? In MY writing? It’s more likely than you’d think

Rhiannon Davies | October 13, 2021

In the first part of this series we talked about confirmation bias and how to identify it. In this post we’ll talk about what confirmation bias does to your writing and how you can avoid it.

How does confirmation bias affect my writing?

If you cherry-pick information, ignore challenges to ideologies, and present that incomplete or incorrect information as fact, your writing risks sounding ill-informed or untrustworthy.

Your writing gets dated

Being open to new information, even if it doesn’t match your personal ideologies, is important if you want your writing to stay current and relevant for the reader.

Imagine what would have happened if a doctor still believed that the people got sick because their humours were out of balance, and refused to learn about germ theory. Or if a psychologist still believed that the shape of someone’s skull dictated whether or not they would be violent.

You’d be hard pressed to put any faith in them as health professionals. You know that medicine and psychology have advanced significantly since these practices were first used. You also know that these practices have been shown to be harmful to patients. If you want readers to trust your writing, your information needs to be current.

Woodcut showing the four humours and the areas of the body they govern from Leonhard Thurneysser's 'Quinta Essentia,' Leipzig, 1574.

Would you trust a doctor that blamed your cancer on an excess of black bile and recommended curing it with either a purgative or laxative? Of course not. Image from Leonhard Thurneysser’s ‘Quinta Essentia,’ Leipzig, 1574. CC BY-NC-ND

Confirmation bias can spread misinformation

When you write in your work role, you’re putting yourself in a position of authority. You’re also representing a business, an organisation, a charity, or a government department. Readers trust you to write with integrity and to maintain the reputation of the entity you work for. They trust you to give them accurate information so they can make important decisions in life. So writing comes with responsibility.

Let’s say that our doctor from the last example secretly hates cats. They tell their patients that cuddling cats will increase black bile production, throwing their humours out of balance and making them sick. One of their patients is allergic to cats, and writes for a newspaper.

They believe the doctor’s story because: a) they trust their doctor; and b) being around cats makes them itchy and sneeze lots.

The patient writes an article about how cats affect black bile production, which is published the next day. Hundreds of people read information that is presented as fact, when it is actually based on outdated, dangerous medical practices and one person’s opinion.

Misinformation can be spread either accidentally or on purpose. So be sure to check the validity of your sources and the accuracy of your information to make sure what you’re telling people is fair and accurate.

A tortoiseshell cat staring out the window propped up on a bookcase

Monster doesn’t know what black bile is, but she’s pretty sure it’s not her fault. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NY-ND

How do I avoid confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is easy to avoid, once you’ve recognised it.

Think outside your comfort zone and consider all the information

Confirmation bias limits the way we think about the world. When you read information that you would ordinarily dismiss, try looking at it with an open mind about the viewpoint . This won’t necessarily change the way you think about something, but by examining other information you can get a better handle on why other people hold different ideas.

Debate your own point

Let’s say that our cat-hating doctor’s been called out by the medical profession for their theory about black bile being real.

The doctor makes a list of arguments that back up their claim that black bile is real. Then they go online and search in medical journals published in the last 20 years for counter-arguments. They go through the counter-arguments and see if they can come up with solid rebuttals against them.

Screencap of the Google Scholar search for 'four humours medicine'

The four humours just aren’t a thing in modern medicine, Doc. Let it go. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NC-ND

Check your sources

Not fact-checking your writing is a great way to lose your readership. If you write things that have shaky foundations, your readers will find out.

Save yourself a lot of grief when you’re writing by making sure who you’re referencing is 100 percent solid and reliable. What would happen if someone writing for National Geographic took their geology knowledge from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth? Or someone writing for The Lancet took their medical ethics information from Burke and Hare? Not only would they lose their job in a heartbeat, but they’d drag their publications into disrepute. Readers would never trust either the author or the publication again.

To avoid being tripped up , run your sources through an impartial fact checker like Snopes and do a search on your sources themselves to see what you can find out about them.

And finally, check your own thinking

In the last few years we’ve all read misleading or inaccurate information, so our antennae are more sensitive now than they’ve ever been. Now we just have to apply the same scrutiny to our own writing. It’s not easy, but what an opportunity to check our own thinking. Here’s to integrity, reputation, and building trust!

Learn more about biases

Read Confirmation bias and how to avoid it Part 1: Everyone has a bias

Read our blog post Critical thinking, bias, and media manipulation

Join our Critical Thinking workshop

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