I really like being right. Chances are you do too, because we humans are psychologically inclined to seek out evidence that suggests we’re right. We tend to interpret neutral information in our favor and contrary information as flawed. These related tendencies are often referred to as confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is inevitable, and it colors how every one of us sees the world. If I’ve just received an email from a student asking me to bump their grade up so they can get into med school, I might start grumbling to myself about my lazy students. Then as I’m ruminating on lazy students, I might interpret the next student’s well-intentioned question as a manipulative attempt to score higher on the exam. In other words, I may interpret this latter interaction as confirming my feeling that arose from the prior one — the students’ laziness — even if the second student wasn’t lazy or manipulative at all.
Confirmation bias can, in part, explain why there are still way too many parents who don’t have their children vaccinated. Once they believe that vaccines might be harmful for their children, they seek evidence to confirm that belief — for example, clinging to the very small percentage of people who do have adverse reactions to vaccines. Even an overwhelming amount of data demonstrating the benefits of vaccines and the fact that the vaccines-and-autism rumors started from completely fraudulent “science” will not persuade this person. They’ve chosen which evidence to believe and which to discard, even if they don’t necessarily see it as a conscious choice.
An audience’s confirmation bias can be extremely frustrating for science communicators. It can make it feel like communication attempts are futile, since some members will already have their mind made up, and will interpret new information through the lens of their current belief.
But successful science communication is not just a process of information transmission. The idea that the public just hasn’t received enough science info, and that they’ll hold more pro-science beliefs and make more pro-science decisions is incredibly misguided. Confirmation bias illustrates why heaping information on people will not change minds if they have contrary beliefs they seek to confirm. I’ve written about this before, and so have many other great writers.
We need to meet our audience where they’re at: LISTEN, recognize their concerns, find common ground, and empathize with them. Start there, and then share your message.
For science communicators: Your audience is going to have cognitive biases. It’s important not to let your awareness of their biases color how you think of the people you’re communicating with. In fact, if you start to characterize your audience as stubborn or irrational because their biases act as obstacles to accepting the science you want to share, you are falling prey to yet another cognitive bias — a fundamental attribution error, or a correspondence bias. This bias plays out when we attribute someone else’s behaviors to their personality (for example, they’re not understanding my science because they’re irrational) more than we would attribute our own behaviors to our personalities.
Remember, you, too, have cognitive biases. Although at times those biases might drive you to make stubborn or irrational conclusions, you probably don’t think of yourself as a stubborn or irrational person. Instead, you might recognize that your unique background and your current circumstances have led you to make biased decisions. Acting stubborn in a certain context does not necessarily make you a stubborn person. We must remember this is true, even when we’re communicating with seemingly stubborn people.
So when you’re communicating, recognize that your audience has cognitive biases — this part, I think, is not too hard. What’s more difficult is to also recognize that you have cognitive biases. No real communication can happen until you do this — until you acknowledge that your audience is comprised of human beings, all of whom have wonderfully complex cognitive baggage, just like you.