Brain power

High conviction levels prevent us from updating our beliefs

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

It perhaps stands to reason that when we’re highly confident in our beliefs and our decisions, we’re less likely to absorb information that might contract them, but nonetheless, new research1 from University College London highlights just how pervasive this phenomenon is.  The study aims to highlight the neural processes that underpin the confirmation bias that riddles so many of our thought processes.

“We were interested in the cognitive and neural mechanisms causing people to ignore information that contradicts their beliefs, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. For example, climate change sceptics might ignore scientific evidence that indicates the existence of global warming,” the researchers explain.  “While psychologists have long known about this bias, the underlying mechanisms were not yet understood.”

The study asked volunteers to judge whether a cloud of dots was moving to the left or to the right of a computer screen, before giving a confidence rating for their answer of between 50% and 100%.  After making their initial decision, they were then shown the dots again and asked to make a final decision.  On this second round, it was made clear that people could change their mind if they felt they’d made a mistake.

Alas, those who were highly confident the first time round, seldom made use of this opportunity.  When a number of the volunteers underwent the experiment in a magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain scanner, it became clear quite why that was.

Decoding certainty

The analysis revealed that when people weren’t confident in their initial choice, they were better able to integrate new information, but that wasn’t the case when they were initially highly confident, after which their brains were practically blind to any information that contradicted their initial choice.

What’s more, the researchers believe that this phenomenon may be even stronger in real life, as our beliefs tend to be more important to us than the movement of a dot on a screen.

“Confirmation bias is often investigated in scenarios that involve complex decisions about issues such as politics,” the researchers say. “However, the complexity of such opinions makes it difficult to disentangle the various contributing factors to the bias, such as wanting to maintain self-consistency with our friends or social group.”

Polarized views

The researchers had previously found that this tendency was especially strong in terms of political beliefs, with those of us holding radical political views poor at knowing when we’re wrong, even on issues that are unrelated to politics.

The paper explains that the neural pathways we use when making a perceptual decision are pretty well understood, so it makes it possible for us to monitor the specific processes the brain goes through each time.  The researchers hope that a better understanding of the precise brain processes involved in the confirmation bias might help us to better overcome it.

“These results are especially exciting to me, as a detailed understanding of the neural mechanisms behind confirmation bias opens up opportunities for developing evidence-based interventions,” the researchers conclude. “For instance, the role of inaccurate confidence in promoting confirmation bias indicates that training people to boost their self-awareness may help them to make better decisions.”

Article source: High Conviction Levels Prevent Us From Updating Our Beliefs.

Header image source: pxfuel.


  1. Rollwage, M., Loosen, A., Hauser, T. U., Moran, R., Dolan, R. J., & Fleming, S. M. (2020). Confidence drives a neural confirmation bias. Nature communications, 11(1), 1-11.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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