Save Your Breath: Why Debating Is a Waste of Time

I got a pretty good (if embarrassing) lesson in confirmation bias this week.


I received an email from a client I’m working with. The email asked me to send him information for an upcoming presentation I’m giving to his group, but exactly what information he wanted wasn’t clear from his brief email. I emailed back, asking for clarification.


He responded with what he wanted, and added, “Sorry I wasn’t more clear, things have been so busy here today. I haven’t been communication (sic) clearly.”


I chuckled under my breath at the irony of his misspelling “communicate” in an email about how his stress has caused his communication levels to suffer, and sent him the information he requested. A few short minutes later, I received this response:


“Yes, that’s exactly what I needed. You’re perfect!”


You’re perfect! I wanted to jump for joy. I hadn’t even delivered a keynote to this client yet, and he already thought I was perfect! I love it when my clients know they’ve made the right decision in hiring me to present at their events!


A few minutes later, reality set in. The man had TOLD me he was busy, stressed, and not communicating well (then he made a typo to prove it)! I understood that he DIDN’T mean the other things he had hastily written, yet I still assumed he DID mean “you’re perfect,” and took that compliment to heart (well, okay, it went straight to my head).


Science tells us this happens because we hear what we want to hear. We look for proof that validates our thoughts and beliefs, and we discount anything that suggests otherwise. This error in thinking is called “confirmation bias,” and we humans practice it all. the. time. We’re wired to cling to information that proves what we already believe is right, and we ignore and reject information to the contrary. I’m not a big sports fan, but if you are, one of my favorite articles on confirmation bias uses basketball statistics to show how all of us, even elite athletes, get duped by confirmation bias.


Confirmation bias can make us feel smart and secure. But it has a big downside. It leaves us extraordinarily prone to argue unproductively with others. We KNOW our beliefs are logical, rational, and – above all – correct, therefore we should be able to educate others. But everyone else brings THEIR confirmation biases to the table, too. And that’s where things get tricky. Recent research from the University of Iowa shows that people’s minds weren’t changed by strong information rebutting their beliefs, NOR were they changed by experiencing consequences of their beliefs (in the U of Iowa study, the consequence was losing money).


Once someone is committed to their beliefs, confirmation bias makes it nearly impossible to change minds. We find only the proof we’re looking for, just like my brain sought out “You’re perfect!” and discarded all the other information that indicated my client meant “I’m typing quickly and not paying attention to what I’m saying and I meant to say, ‘THAT’S perfect.” Confirmation bias is like a brick wall standing between two people in conflict, trying to communicate.


This has been a season of arguing. I applaud everyone who stands up for their beliefs, and I am even MORE in awe of those who allow themselves to engage, learn, and possibly even have their minds changed by conversation. But with much of our conversations today being held in virtual forums like social media, the likelihood of mind-changing seems low. Save your precious energy for your loved ones, keep your conflicts productive, and try to find honest-to-goodness connection in as many places as you can.