This month your UniSkills Focus On… blog is taking a brief detour from discussing resources to explore a phenomenon known as confirmation bias.

Developing your critical thinking skills is an important part of studying at university. Being critical is complex but includes:

  • carefully selecting appropriate sources of research
  • reading sources critically – e.g. by questioning arguments, methods and/or findings
  • writing impartially – e.g. by considering different viewpoints and evidence
  • analysing – e.g. pulling apart a topic to carefully examine what it’s made of
  • evaluating – e.g. weighing up advantages and disadvantages

You’ll find links to UniSkills resources which can help you develop your own critical thinking skills at the end of this blog. One common, natural psychological tendency which can negatively impact your ability to be critical and impartial is confirmation bias.     

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias means:

  • you are more likely to accept information that confirms your beliefs, opinions, or what you think you already know about a topic
  • you are more likely to ignore information which contradicts your views, opinions, or what you think you already know about a topic

When does confirmation bias happen?

Confirmation bias is likely to happen when you:

And it is more likely to happen when:

  • you are emotionally invested in a topic
  • the topic is important to you personally

How can confirmation bias impact you?

Confirmation bias can affect how you:

  • make decisions – as a mental shortcut it saves processing time but lacks objectivity or evaluation
  • form opinions – e.g. asking questions which confirm your expectations when meeting new people
  • think and feel about current events – e.g. placing higher value on information which supports your opinion of a politician or political party than information which challenges your beliefs

Can conformation bias happen without me knowing?

Yes, it can! A lot of instances of confirmation bias are unconscious. Confirmation bias is also built into many online systems. When you search online, confirmation bias impacts both your access to information and the content of information you access in the following ways:

Search engines use algorithms to tailor information in your search results based on the content of your previous searches. This is called the filter bubble effect and can reinforce confirmation bias.

Chat rooms, message boards and even social media channels can become online echo chambers reinforcing the biased views of likeminded individuals.

Are there any benefits of confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is a natural part of how you think and process information. It is fast, instinctive and in some situations can be efficient.

It can also contribute to feelings of wellbeing, as it:

  • protects your sense of self-esteem
  • reinforces your sense of security
  • boosts your confidence
  • increases your sense of certainty
  • preserves your desire to be right about something
  • supports your desire to feel intelligent

On the other hand, critical thinking can be challenging and feel unsatisfying, because:

  • accepting uncertainty and ambiguity are important parts of critical thinking
  • it can lead us to question our own personal opinions, feelings and beliefs
  • It can lead us to question what and how much we know about topics[AP1] 

Why is being aware of confirmation bias useful for your critical thinking?

Having an awareness of confirmation bias means you can think and write more objectively.

Being mindful of your potential for confirmation bias:

  • supports metacognition (thinking about how you think!)
  • reinforces your critical reading and critical thinking skills when researching
  • helps you give more equal consideration to differing viewpoints on a topic
  • strengthens your impartiality and neutrality on a topic
  • underpins your evaluation skills

Further help and support

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about confirmation bias and the importance of developing your critical thinking skills in this month’s blog. If you’d like to explore this topic further check out this short video (4 minutes 29 seconds) from BBC Ideas and the Open University.[JN2] 

Don’t forget you can also access further help and support with your critical thinking, reading and writing on the UniSkills Academic Reading and Writing web page, including our new Being Critical Toolkit and opportunities to book on an upcoming UniSkills Workshop or one-to-one appointment

Join us next month, when we’ll be investigating Oxford Reference Online and Credo Reference.