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  • Terry R. Bacon

Influence Effectiveness and Confirmation Bias

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

The biases in people's minds can create strong barriers to influence. Their strongly held beliefs, whether based on truth or not, can be formidable obstacles when you are trying to persuade them otherwise.

People believe what they want to believe, and faced with new evidence they will favor information that supports their existing beliefs and ignore disconfirming information. This psychological phenomenon is not restricted to certain people or groups; it applies to everyone all the time—left or right, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, pro life or pro choice, it doesn’t matter. I would hesitate to say that we are all “guilty” of confirmation bias because guilt has nothing to do with it.

Confirmation bias is simply a fact of life. It’s how we think. It’s how we engage with ideas. A substantial amount of research has shown that we judge others based on how much their ideas corroborate our beliefs. We are more likely to consider people experts on global warming, for instance, if what they say supports what we already believe to be true about global warming.

“If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories." Karl Popper

Confirmation bias is powerful because it is not simply a cognitive phenomenon; it is also an emotional phenomenon. When we hear facts or statements that support our existing beliefs, we are satisfied, even happy, because they reinforce our beliefs. They suggest that we are right (and people who disagree with us are wrong). But when we hear facts or statements that run contrary to what we believe, we are confronted with the prospect that we’re wrong, that we’ve been mistaken, that we aren’t as smart as we thought we were. It’s an emotional affront, and we might even become angry at the messenger. It wasn’t what we wanted to hear.

It’s embarrassing to admit you were wrong. It would be uncomfortable, even shameful, to confess to people who have shared your beliefs that you now think those beliefs are incorrect. It might even be dangerous to do so. Ask ordinary Germans in the 1930s who were opposed to Hitler. And for some people it can be life denying. Someone who has been a religious zealot all his life cannot accept information suggesting that his life’s work—his life’s purpose—has been in vain. In short, acknowledging that he’s been wrong about some deeply held belief can create an existential dilemma of the worst kind.

“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that's our there." Barack Obama

Confirmation bias is a primary reason why the influence technique of logical persuading can be risky and ineffective. Although it’s the most common influence technique used around the world, it is often ineffective because the people you are trying to influence are biased against listening to the evidence if it doesn’t support what they already believe.

What can you do about this? Maybe not much. Maybe the best you can do is understand what they already believe and how important those beliefs are to them and then craft your message accordingly. Presenting disconfirming evidence to them directly often just increases their opposition. A more effective tactic may be to chip away at small parts of their belief system. If you can persuade them to listen objectively to one, seemingly less-threatening part of your argument and get them to shift their position slightly, then you may introduce enough seeds of doubt to eventually get them to see your whole argument, even though it disconfirms their previously held beliefs.

Remember that influence is often a process rather than an event, and you will be more likely to succeed if you can get them to swallow a few chips and salsa instead of force feeding them the whole enchilada at once.

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