Why Confirmation Bias Can Damage Families And Finding Ways To Combat It
A friend of mine remarked that he gets his news from only one network because “they report things that support what I believe.”
Psychologists call this “confirmation bias,” the tendency to selectively pay attention to information that reinforces our existing beliefs. This bias acts as a type of filter to our brain, denying entry to any information that contradicts our existing preconceptions.
This confirmation bias can be particularly damaging within families, and it plays itself out in a variety of ways.
Scapegoated kids. Some youngsters take a path different than their siblings. In so doing, they experience the risk of being the victims of confirmation bias. This occurs most frequently with children, typically a second or third born, who do not achieve academically or socially as well as their siblings.
On many occasions, parents’ views of their “troubled” children don’t allow them to notice the many positive achievements of their youngsters. I’ve given homework assignments that required parents to record only positive behaviors exhibited by these kids.
When forced to confront their confirmation bias, parents are surprised that even troubled youngsters are often kind, well-behaved and productive in their own way.
Confirmation Bias In Divorce
Divorce situations. I’ve had little success in challenging confirmation bias in divorce situations. Many parents cannot tolerate the idea that their ex-spouse can be a jerk on some occasions and a loving mom or dad at other times. Ex-spouses simply never notice the many positive qualities of the other parent.
Kids inadvertently feel they have to select sides in a battle in which everyone loses. The parents stay agitated and angry at each other. The kids are unintentionally emotionally battered.
Want to combat confirmation bias?
- Seek out diversity. Confronting this natural bias starts with intentionally seeking experiences and information beyond our comfort zone. This means staying away from certain news channels for a week and instead watching other media. Read a parenting book that has an approach different than your own. Take your kids to a religious service outside of your faith.
- Understand, before asking to be understood. I’ve spoken with lots of kids who are angry that their parents don’t understand them. I give these kids the following assignment.
Interview each of your parents. Ask them questions about their childhood, jobs, dreams and disappointments. Summarize what you’ve learned about your parents at our next meeting.
Kids initially do terrible with this assignment. Confirmation bias overwhelms them, as they only pay attention to what they expect to hear. Children need to work hard to overcome their preconceived ideas.
Confirmation Bias Requires Open Mind
Confirmation bias is dangerous in families. The solution is to keep an open mind and be guided by thoughtful reflection rather than emotional reaction.
Gregory Ramey, Ph.D., is a child psychologist and vice president for outpatient services at the Children’s Medical Center of Dayton. For more of his columns, visit www.childrensdayton.org/ramey and join Dr. Ramey on Facebook at www.facebook.com/drgregramey. Dr. Ramey has been a guest contributor to the Ohio Family Blog since 2007.
[Reprinted by permission from the September 27,, 2015, edition of the Dayton Daily News, “Confirmation bias stirs danger” Gregory Ramey, PhD]
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Guest Contributor Gregory Ramey, PhD, Child Psychologist and Dayton Daily News Columnist
Gregory Ramey, PhD, is a nationally recognized child psychologist and columnist who has worked at Dayton Children’s Hospital since 1979. In addition to his weekly column in the Dayton Daily News about effective parenting, Ramey has conducted more than 200 workshops and has recently been quoted in articles in Redbook, Parenting, Ladies Home Journal as well as columns distributed by the New York Times Wire Service.