Confirmation bias on the web

September 12th, 2008

There’s such a diversity of opinion on the web that you’ll always be able to find a point of view that matches your own.

Add to this our innate tendency to weight evidence that supports our POV and discount contrary evidence (“confirmation bias”), and I’m left thinking that we are probably innately unable to research objectively on the web. Look long enough and you’ll find ‘evidence’ to back up your preconceptions, whatever they are.

This was highlighted to me in a workshop I ran recently with mothers on social behaviour online. Parenting is an arena of strongly held feelings about what is right personally, as well as deep insecurity on whether parents are doing the ‘right’ thing. Mothers, it turns out, like the fact that they can go online and find people with the same processes and ways of coping because it gives them confidence about their own strategies. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the best strategies for them, it’s just confirmation bias in action.

Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these aren’t the best strategies either: they could be, but it would be more by luck than judgement. This, perhaps, is no bad thing if we are to follow the gut-feeling rule for making complex decisions. Although even under this rule, mothers could probably save time time by not even bothering with the internet and doing whatever they feel is right.

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