Confirmation Bias, Part Two How to Overcome Your Own 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. Last month’s column focused on two topics: how confirmation bias works (selective attention, selective perception, and so on); and how risk communicators can overcome an audience’s confirmation bias to improve the odds of getting through with a message the audience is predisposed not to hear.
Now I want to address a different question: how to overcome—well, partly overcome—your own confirmation bias.

I don’t want to sound too Pollyanna here, or holier-than-thou. I have plenty of trouble making myself read articles I know I’m going to disagree with—and I’ve pretty much given up on making myself read them with an open mind. Overcoming your own confirmation bias is difficult. Still, researchers have found some approaches that help at least a little. SCRUTINIZE YOURSELF Recognize the problem. That doesn’t mean just recognizing that confirmation bias exists. It means recognizing that you are vulnerable to it just like everybody else.
Consciously seek out opposing views. Do that with regard to specific issues and controversies. But do it more generally as well. Regularly watch a newscast or subscribe to a magazine that sees everything from “the other side.” Find internet aggregators that mostly collect sources from “the other side.”
Think of your opinions not as undeniable truths but as hypotheses that deserve to be tested. And then rethink what you know about how to test hypotheses. Even when we’re not emotionally committed and genuinely trying to get the right answer, we typically test our hypotheses by looking for evidence that we’re right. That biases what evidence we find and limits how much evidence we find. Collecting example after example of cases where we’re right doesn’t help us know where we might be wrong. We would learn more, usually, if we searched for disconfirming evidence instead of confirming evidence. 
Beware of overconfidence. The more confident you are about an opinion, the more strongly you will exercise your toolkit of confirmation bias defenses to protect yourself from evidence that you’re wrong. So work extra hard to expose yourself to opposing views on the issues where you’re surest of your own view.
Realize that “right” doesn’t mean 100 percent right. It’s a rare point of view that doesn’t have some solid facts and valid arguments to be cited on its behalf. So go find the solid facts and valid arguments on behalf of viewpoints you’re pretty sure are mostly wrong.
Always require yourself to be able to summarize the opposition’s strongest case. If you can’t summarize it, you have fallen victim to confirmation bias.
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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.
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