Confirmation
Bias
How to Counter Your Audience’s Preexisting Beliefs
BY PETER M. SANDMAN
Confirmation bias is the universal tendency of human beings to hang on to what they already believe in the face of evidence to the contrary. I’m not talking about intentional bias—consciously building a biased case in hopes of winning an argument. Confirmation bias is unintentional. It’s how we win our internal arguments, how we convince ourselves we’re right.

Since this is a risk communication column, I want to focus here on the implications of confirmation bias for risk communicators. Your audience members are sure to filter your warnings and reassurances through their own preexisting opinions about what’s safe and what isn’t, resisting anything you say that tries to change their views. How should this fact affect your messaging?
There’s a second part to this column, postponed to a later issue, on ways to minimize your own confirmation bias—ways to be more open to challenging information.
HOW CONFIRMATION BIAS WORKS
Confirmation bias is a system of defenses aimed at protecting you—and me, and everybody—from uncomfortable information. Here are some of its key components.
Selective exposure and selective attention are our first lines of defense against information we don’t want to know about. We try not to encounter messages that we disagree with, and if we run into them by accident we try to tune them out.
When we fail to tune out messages we don’t agree with, selective perception is a key unconscious strategy for avoiding their meaning. We simply misperceive them.
Closely related to selective perception is framing. We see new information through the frame of what we know or believe already. When a U.S. public health official states that she expects “local outbreaks” of Zika virus disease, for example, some in the audience picture widespread, devastating outbreaks, while others picture a few very small ones. Their prior opinions about how much Zika we’re likely to experience is the frame through which they perceive what the official meant by “local outbreaks.”
Selective interpretation is more conscious than selective perception and framing. If we possibly can, we find a way to interpret—opponents would say “misinterpret”—messages so they don’t challenge our preconceptions. Suppose you asked Trump and Clinton supporters to listen to a speech by either candidate, and then to tell you what they heard. In addition to a lot of selective perception, their answers would reflect a lot of selective interpretation as well. “What he (or she) really meant was….”
Our final defense is selective retention. If we can’t avoid or ignore or misperceive or misinterpret the messages that tell us we’re wrong about something, we forget them or misremember them. Try sitting down with someone you had a fight with last week to reconstruct who said what. Your recollections will be quite different, and both will be self-serving.
Not every risk message encounters confirmation bias. Sometimes your audience has absolutely no preexisting opinions, attitudes, values, or expectations relevant to your topic. You’re talking to the proverbial tabula rasa (“blank slate”), and the main barrier to the audience absorbing your message is probably apathy.
When your message is actually of interest to your audience, on the other hand, they’re likely to be testing that message against what they already know and believe and feel—and confirmation bias will rear its ugly head. Employees whose years of accident-free work have taught them they don’t need to adhere to safety procedures will deploy these defenses against your safety messaging. Neighbors whose outrage about your facility’s emissions tells them the facility is causing cancer in the community will deploy them against your reassurances. How can you overcome their confirmation bias?
Look for ways to reframe your core message so it is more compatible with your audience’s preexisting opinions, attitudes, values, and expectations.

DEPARTMENTS
RISK COMMUNICATION
PETER M. SANDMAN
is a risk communication consultant and speaker. Much of his work on risk communication can be found on his website,
www.psandman.com
. Comments on this and future columns can be sent to
peter@psandman.com
and to
synergist@aiha.org
.
thesynergist | TOC | NEWSWATCH | DEPARTMENTS | COMMUNITY