The one thing that we all share in common in this world – the one universal – is that we all have problems.
I do not know about you, but I feel that I am a pretty good problem-solver. However, if you continue to face the same problem over and over again, are you truly solving that problem? This is a question that I had to ponder just about three years ago.
The Mind Sees What it Wants to See
As a Performance Psychology Consultant working for the military, part of the requirements for my position is to be certified as a Resilience instructor. So, there I was on a Thursday afternoon, listening to the Primary Instructor talk to us about how to be an effective problem solver and how that would lead to one being more resilient. I remember, in particular, how he spoke about Confirmation Bias – how our mind sees what it wants to see in order to confirm our beliefs, and how that can be detrimental to becoming resilient.
The problem I always seemed to find myself in was that I never had money to spend. I was struggling with the exercise proposed by the instructor because I already knew why this was a problem: I was bad at money management, and I had too many friends asking me for gambling advice. As the Assistant Primary Instructor was walking me through my struggles I came to a harsh realization: I was addicted to gambling. Why this experience hit me as hard as it did was because I believe deep down, I knew what was causing this problem, I just never wanted to admit it.
This is the impact that confirmation bias can have on our ability to solve our problems, but also how we view the world around us. If I am only going to look for the information that confirms what my beliefs are, then I do not have a full understanding of what is going on. You may even see the counter evidence right in front of you but will think to yourself “that is just an anomaly” or some other justification. The impact that confirmation bias had on me was that I saw the evidence right in front of me that told me I was gambling too much, but I chose to justify my actions and not place any value on what I was actually seeing. The ultimate consequence of not placing any value on that information was that I had high amounts of debt and nothing in my savings account as a 30-year-old. And while being able to confront confirmation bias and to question your own beliefs may not change them, the process of the struggle may nonetheless provide more information and more clarity to what you are experiencing.
How to Fight the Confirmation Bias
Fighting the confirmation bias is not easy, but it can be done and can help you develop a clearer understanding of your problems. First, it is important to slow down. There is a tendency to solve problems as quickly as possible so you can move onto the next thing. However, when you choose speed and efficiency, accuracy frequently gets lost. Therefore, the first step in developing a better understanding of this problem that is front and center is to slow down, take a step back, and breathe, then capture and write down the fundamental contours of what it is that needs to be figured out.
Second, find someone you can trust to help you look at the other side of the equation. When people have problems they need to vent about, often times they will go to someone who will “hype them up” and back whatever it is they are saying. This may make the individual feel good, but the downside is that you are keeping them from seeing the full picture. Therefore, it is important that you go to someone who is going to challenge your thinking. Not necessarily in a negative way, but in a way that forces you to critically think outside of your current beliefs.
Lastly, in engaging your objective partner in discussion and problem solving, it is going to take some humility on your end to actually look at the counter evidence. It is easy to find the information that supports (or confirms) our ways of thinking, but not so easy to look at the information that goes against our ways of thinking. The key is to ask questions that are more neutral than they are guided or directive. For example, if I believe that I never have money to spend, asking myself “Why are you so broke?” will lead me to look at all the evidence that supports why I never have money to spend. However, if I ask myself questions related to “On average, how many days in the week do you go over/under budget?” might provide me with a clearer understanding of how I allocate my money. It will still provide me with evidence I need, but being more neutral in your questions may provide I different perspective on that information.
Being open-minded, being neutral, and confronting our beliefs is not an easy task, especially when our values and beliefs are deeply rooted in our brains. However, your beliefs can provide a major roadblock to fully understanding the problems you have in your life, but also in your ability to be resilient in times of adversity and challenging situations. This is not to say you need to change your beliefs, but the willingness to confront and question your beliefs – and having the humility to look at the other side – can help you solve problems more effectively and ultimately, lead you down the path of building a more resilient life.