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Why your brain stops you from being eco-friendly: the confirmation bias

Updated: Sep 8, 2020



Let’s start with a joke:


A shooter from Texas goes to a shooting range and starts firing on a wall. He then draws a bullseye circle at the area where most of his shots were hit and claims proudly that he’s a sharpshooter.


Hmm ok not really funny…but that’s exactly how we behave mostly every day.


We constantly tend to make the information we find in the outside world match our beliefs. You guessed it, it’s a problem that needs our full attention and we’ll see why.


In this article you’ll learn:

  • How the confirmation bias leads to wrong judgements and action/inaction

  • What are the implications on Climate Change Mitigation

  • What solutions we could use to fight this bias


The confirmation bias, dangerous comfort zone


In our last article about biases, we covered the overconfidence bias which makes us overestimating our capabilities and make wrong judgements. Following this notion, the confirmation bias focuses on how our brain processes the information we seek out in the outside world.


In short:

  • Confirmation bias happens when a person gives more weight to evidence that confirms their beliefs and undervalues evidence that could disprove it.

  • People display this bias when they gather or recall information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way.

  • The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

  • It suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We focus on those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices.

Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When some of us would like a certain idea or concept to be true, we end up believing it to be true. We are motivated by wishful thinking.


This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views or prejudices one would like to be true. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.


Confirmation bias is the most effective way to go on living a lie. — Criss Jami

A need for confirmation at any cost


Why this bias is such a big deal? To answer this, we need to dig into psychological and biological factors.


Let’s start:


Why confirming our beliefs is so important to each of us?


Because confirmation decreases our uncertainties.


And why decreasing uncertainties matters so much?


Because a high level of uncertainties leads to a high level of stress! (I’m sure you get that).


And what does the stress does to you?


As your body perceives stress, your adrenal glands make and release the hormone cortisol into your bloodstream.


Cortisol creates emotional and sensory pain…and we HATE that.


So, unconsciously, we do everything to avoid it.


We are always striving to decrease our uncertainty and increase our certainty.


“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” — Warren Buffett

Okay then, but why does it matter for climate change and eco-friendly behaviors?


When the confirmation bias plays against climate change mitigation


Our beliefs design our actions


To create certainties, we imagine patterns, we create logics, we form opinions.


Once we establish a logic, we then move forward to confirm this logic via media or through our own experiences.


This drives our actions as our actions follow our beliefs.


But…


Even though acquiring knowledge is useful in the process, any information that threatens the architecture judgment that we were forming in order to come to a conclusion is rejected by our brain.


Simply because these conflicting information would create uncertainties again, after all the efforts our brain put to remove them.


This same logic can be applied for Climate Change Mitigation.


3 ways the confirmation bias negatively impacts Climate Change Mitigation


When it's about receiving information about climate change, I identify 3 problematic scenarios:


1. The opinion against climate change is already formed so any conflicting info is rejected


We already have a constructed set of beliefs against Climate Change veracity. We will reject any information that goes against it. We’ll look for and find information that confirm our current beliefs (because we have already constructed it and we want certainties, remember?).


2. The opinion is being formed but the cost of action changes the set of beliefs


At first, we actually believe in Climate Change and consider the information. However, something important happens here: for a sum of reasons that will be detailed in another article, we don’t know or are not capable of taking the actions that are aligned with this particular set of beliefs.


Well, we don’t like stress so we will do everything to align, right? We gotta change something.

So it leads to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.


Bad news, it usually doesn’t play in favour of Climate Change Mitigation.


Here it goes:


“Should I align my action to my beliefs?


Let me see…Oh… Taking actions against climate change seems incredibly hard, complex and I’d need to change the habits my brain worked so hard to form…


Wait…Ah, it’s seems way easier to go the other way around. Changing my beliefs to match my current actions seems way more accessible and less energy-consuming!

Okay let’s forget about climate change, I now believe that it’s not such a big deal so I can carry on my business as usual. Sorted, I am aligned.”


So some of us change their minds about the issue rather than changing their habits because it’s an easier way to cope.


3. The opinion is favourable to climate change action but is dismissed


Similarly to scenario 2, the cost of action is too high for the individual so he’d rather burry this judgement and not think about it so he can forget about the action he is supposed to take.


To sum up, the confirmation bias has negative influence when:

  • People will reject information against their beliefs, no matter the facts

  • People will develop defence mechanisms to avoid the problem

  • People will share wrong information cause it fits their set of belief, their perception of the world


All this, justifies the status quo and inaction.


Any solutions, anyone?


Our incapacities to align actions to our thoughts and perceptions causes a feeling of mental discomfort and stress. This is called the cognitive dissonance.

How to overcome the confirmation bias


Flooding social media and news sites with catastrophic information is very often ineffective. Worse, this can be counterproductive as some people might just react in a defensive way.


However, first, I have something to confess... I’ve oversimplified some notions above to make it digestible.


The effect of the exposure of information depends on the audience groups.


Ex: an experiment conducted by Hart and Nisbet (2012) demonstrated that exposure to scientific information increased support for climate mitigation policies among Democrats, whereas exposure to the same information decreased support among Republicans.


For the purpose of this article, I’ll intend to form general approaches that can be starting points for more target-focused solutions.


To change minds and trigger actions the key is to change the way we communicate and frame the message differently:


Boosting egos rather than undermining them


The ego-defensive tendencies I mentioned, serve the goal of preserving the individual’s self-esteem, as it is easier to persist in the assumption that one’s opinions are correct.


So rather than frontally going against people’s opinions or underline their inactions, one direction should be to provide them with alternatives to boost their ego by:


Giving people the feeling that they can do something.

One of the main mistake in communicating climate change is to focus on “Fear messaging”.

These messages are usually perceived as overwhelming and It tends to make people burry their head on the ground. We should rather focus on “self-efficacy”.

Beyond providing a list of actions people can do, we need to clearly show how these individual actions can deliver results.


Ex: as a French person, using bicycles, as in replacing the car with a bicycle for short journeys in urban areas can reduce my individual GHG emission by 0,27 tonnes of CO2 out of the 2.8 tonnes of the yearly objective to reach the 2015 Paris agreement standards.


Having a vegetarian diet would account for 1.12 tonnes of CO2 reduced yearly*, 10% of what each individual need to achieve to respect the 2015 Paris agreement.


Providing a sense of responsibility, locally.

Along the same line, a strategic objective of climate change messaging is to embark people on its journey. Establishing a sense of personal responsibility, not towards “the planet” but towards the people the individual knows and interacts with: family members he lives with, people from his communities, neighbors, friends… is a way to empower the individual and thus improve self-esteem.


Another approach to explore is to a messenger, a voice that people feel connected with.


Using the right messenger


Scientists have been warning us and feeding us with relevant information about the risks of climate change for decades. The problem is: this is a top down approach, where people mostly feel very distant or disengaged with. It might seem obvious but we all feel way more comfortable to trust people we know or we have real connection with.

Communicating with a known and trusted voice 

To have a specific group of people listen and comprehend a message including a high level of passion, an efficient way to proceed is use the voice of someone the group members know and respect.

An idea is to use the voice of communities influencer, either they be social media influencers or simply local leaders from the neighborhood.


Use their voice to be heard, listened and followed.


“Illusion is the first of all pleasure.” — Voltaire

Yes, we tend to live in the illusion that makes us feel safe and comfortable. But the illusion some of us live in, consciously or not, will lead us to irreversible scenarios we all want to avoid.


Finding ways to go against our confirmation bias is critical in our journey to change behaviors for the greater good.


Questions? Thoughts? Get in touch — I’d love to hear them!

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