What Is Confirmation Bias and How to Recognize and Overcome It

Updated on December 6, 2018
This image, an example of confirmation bias, is often posted on social media when mass shootings occur
This image, an example of confirmation bias, is often posted on social media when mass shootings occur

Whenever a white person commits a mass shooting you will likely come across an argument similar to this.

"When perpetrators of violence are people of color, journalists, politicians and many citizens treat their violence as natural, expected. But when shooters are white men who kill white victims, politicians like Trump, and indeed many other facets of white America, reach for the notion of an unstable, angry, isolated person driven to mass murder."
-- When the shooter is white, Jonathan M. Metzl, The Washington Post

Yet mental illness is generally considered a factor in mass shootings regardless of the race of the shooter. Here are a few examples:

Examples of Media Reports of Mental Illness in Minority Killers

On October 24, 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested for killing 10 people in the Beltway sniper attacks. Muhammad had converted to Islam years before the attack. Yet just days later on October 30, the New York Post ran an article titled "Kin Reveal Shooter’s ‘Terrible’ Inner Torment." These are some lines from the article:

"“Terrible childhood” and losing child-custody battles in the courts, ex-wife Carol Williams said on “Larry King Live.”"

"Gulf War post-traumatic-stress syndrome that caused him to “just jump out of his sleep and scream” if he’d so much as hear a door slam, nephew Edward Williams Jr., 19, suggested."

In fact, many in the media wondered if during Muhammad's service in the Gulf War he had been exposed to toxic chemicals. Some in the media went so far as to suggest that US military policies essentially created the violent individual who carried out the attacks.

"He was a very angry man...The one I knew stayed in Saudi.”

When Richard Rojas deliberately plowed his car through a crowd in Times Square in New York City killing one and injuring 22, his mental state was repeatedly brought up as a factor beginning the day of the attack. Even right wing Breitbart had this headline "Reports: Times Square Murder Suspect Richard Rojas Mentally Ill, High on Drugs During Attack" with these quotes:

"Law enforcement officials told The New York Times that Rojas said he heard voices and had hallucinations. He also talked about provoking the police to kill him...Rojas served in the Navy between 2011 and 2014 before being court martialed, the Associated Press reported. A friend of his told the outlet that he had been having a rough time since being discharged and had been posting “crazy stuff” online..."

The mental health system was a factor in the massacre at Virginia Tech carried out by Seung Hui Cho, according to many articles:

"The missing mental health records of Seung Hui Cho, released Wednesday afternoon, provide more evidence that Virginia Tech's counseling center and the state's mental health system failed to recognize, communicate and treat the gunman's increasingly erratic behavior."

This is a headline from the New York Daily News: Letter from Jiverly Wong, the gunman in the Binghamton massacre, shows insight into paranoid mind

"Just before setting off on his massacre, he sent a two-page delusional rant to a Syracuse television station saying the police were spying on him, sneaking into his home and trying to get into car accidents with him."
-- Binghamton Killer Kept His Fury Private, New York Times

This is a CNN headline related to Gavin Long who killed three police officers in Baton Rouge, LA in 2016: Gavin Long said he suffered from PTSD, source tells CNN

An example of a nonwhite killer getting sympathetic media coverage

So, if mental illness as a factor is frequently brought up even when a mass killer is a person of color, what explains the widespread belief that it's a privilege reserved for white men.

Confirmation bias is a likely explanation. Confirmation bias occurs when people actively seek out information which confirms existing opinions while avoiding sources which contradicts them. However, this sounds very deliberate. In fact, confirmation bias often occurs subconsciously. When people either want something to be true, or when they repeatedly hear that something is true, they will believe it's true regardless of what evidence and facts actually show. Information that confirms prior beliefs or prejudices jump out at them, while those that are contradictory don't stand out.

If someone is reading an article about a white mass shooter, any mentions of mental illness may jump out at them because those mentions either confirm something they already believe or something they often hear. Those mentions reinforce the belief that white shooter's actions are being explained away as illness, a benefit not afforded to nonwhites. When mental illness is brought up related to a person of color, that fact won't stand out because it conflicts with preexisting beliefs, or it contradicts something they often hear.

Societal Effects of Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias can have significant effects on society. An example of this is Donald Trump winning the presidency partly by exploiting fears that immigrants entering the United States are a significant source of crime.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best...They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

This statement suggests that most Mexican immigrants are dangerous and a few are good. Yet the evidence shows the opposite. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Many Americans falsely believe that hordes of dangerous criminals are crossing our borders and committing crimes but according to a study by the Cato Institute that isn't true:

"As a percentage of their respective populations, there were 56 percent fewer criminal convictions of illegal immigrants than of native-born Americans in Texas in 2015. The criminal conviction rate for legal immigrants was about 85 percent below the native-born rate."

If a person already holds the belief that immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, are more dangerous than native born Americans crimes by members of those groups will jump out at them. The killing of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts is an example of this. Her murder received a lot of attention in right leaning media because her killer was an undocumented immigrant. This is a case of people seeking out an example that confirms pre-existing beliefs even though conviction rates prove that illegal immigrants are less likely to commit most types of crime, including homicide.

"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge." -

Daniel J. Boorstin

How to Counter Confirmation Bias

Since confirmation bias is the tendency to look for information that supports what you already believe, and ignore information that disputes what you believe, the way to counter it is to look for evidence that proves you wrong. In other words, think critically and look at evidence objectively. And if evidence proves a belief you hold is wrong, you should reject it. Ideally people should seek out neutral media sources since right and left leaning media sources are often selective in their reporting, deliberately giving their audiences information that will lead to a certain belief even if that belief is wrong.

An example of this is the insistence in right leaning media that President Barack Obama's economic policies were disastrous for job creation while President Donald Trump's policies have led to a booming economy. In fact, average job growth was higher during the last two years of Obama's presidency than the first two years of Trump's. Someone who wants people to vote Republican will have no incentive to provide them with facts that don't help their side. By seeking out multiple sources of information it becomes harder for people with agendas to manipulate us.

In How Confirmation Bias Affects You Every Single Day, Psychology Today recommends asking the following questions when consuming information:

  • Which parts did I automatically agree with?
  • Which parts did I ignore or skim over without realizing?
  • How did I react to the points which I agreed or disagreed with?
  • Did this post confirm any ideas I already had? Why?
  • What if I thought the opposite of those ideas?

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