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Confirmation Bias & Politics in Behavioral Science Research

As a research psychologist, I work in a field with predominately left-leaning scientists. Several years ago, at a Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference we were asked, by show of hands, who identified as a Liberal, Conservative, or Libertarian. I, being one of maybe 10 people (out of thousands), raised my hand as a Conservative.

It was at this moment that a light bulb went off in my head – no wonder I have felt so out of place in my career…no wonder I feel like I’m the only one with certain research ideas…no wonder I’m the only one who adds certain variables to a study or requests to do certain statistical analyses. I’ve felt like such an outcast, because I was an outcast. These people I work with on a daily basis don’t think like me nor can they relate to my thoughts and ideas. Our fundamental beliefs about the world around us are so different. It makes for sometimes a difficult day, feeling like it’s an uphill battle, but I’ve got thick skin and can handle it. 😊

The real concern for me is the impact this has on the general population. The general population uses findings from research to guide their day-to-day lives, particularly in today’s day with news at our fingertips. But what if the research being conducted is only half true? The failure to incorporate other viewpoints limits the design, inclusion of outcome variables, analysis techniques, recruitment methods, and so much more!

Social and behavioral scientists are taught about Confirmation Bias, but interestingly it is this bias that some of them engage in with their research. Confirmation bias is the assertion that we seek out information that supports our own beliefs, thoughts, behaviors, etc. As basic as it seems, we do this because it makes us feel good. Psychologically, emotionally, and physically – our bodies work best when we are at homeostasis. When we are exposed to or witness events or others’ beliefs that are at odds with our own, this can cause tension within our systems which doesn’t feel good. We seek to get rid of this feeling, and we certainly don’t want to feel this way again. So, what we do is we surround ourselves with people who agree with us, who are from the same background as us, or think the same way as we do. This is Confirmation Bias. And this is a very dangerous place to be. The more you surround yourself with people who are like you, the farther away you get from understanding that there are many other people who aren’t like you…and that their opinions and beliefs are just as valid as your own.

The danger for scientists who engage in Confirmation Bias is that there are great implications for our society. The stakes are higher. Our research and the recommendations from our research impact each of us on a daily basis. Think about this example. A behavioral science researcher has been asked to study the impact of a government program on its’ recipients. This researcher is left-leaning and believes that more government assistance is better and personally believes this program should receive additional government funding. Without a researcher who thinks differently than he/she, can you imagine how this research could be designed, implemented, and assessed? Maybe this researcher includes variables that would contribute to positive outcomes of this study, such as number of visits to the grocery store, number of visits to a doctor, access to technology services. As these variables increase, the more positive this program appears to be. However, what about the impact of this service on future longer-term outcomes, such as internal motivation, self-efficacy, impact on non-recipients in form of taxes, impact on job growth…just to name a few. Lower self-efficacy and internal motivation are not good things. Increased taxes on non-recipients are also not good. If the researcher fails to measure these other variables or measures them in a way that biases their result – the research outcomes have already been created before data is even collected. And this same narrative applies to researchers who are right leaning - We should all seek out alternative viewpoints.

The bottom line is this – We must be aware of our biases, and we must take explicit action to reduce them when it comes to scientific research. Different perspectives are good, and good science requires these different perspectives.


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