Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Place of Confirmation Bias in Information Literacy Instruction

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of confirmation bias lately. This is the well-researched and pretty much universal psychological phenomenon wherein when we search for and interact with information, we tend to focus on those pieces of information that confirm our existing beliefs and ignore or downplay those that contradict those beliefs. We all view life and interpret the world around us through our own particular lenses, which are tinted/focused/aimed according to our existing beliefs. This isn't a bad thing. But, it does mean we all have blind spots, especially when a particular information need or research assignment touches on a topic that bumps up against strongly held beliefs. Is see this all the time on the reference desk: in the way students frame their research topic, in the way they ask their questions; and in the sources they end up using. As we know, unfortunately, many freshmen research papers task students with writing essays on a controversial or current social or policy topic, often requiring the standard "three information sources." This plays right into the wheelhouse of our confirmation biases.

I've started introducing this concept to students in my Research Skills online workshops. Not as a central piece of any lesson plan, but more as an icebreaker activity to get these mostly working adult students to reflect on their own thinking processes and beliefs. I start by asking them what they think confirmation bias is and then go on to a brief discussion about how such biases might blind us when we seek and interact with the topics and information sources needed for succeeding at the academic level. I try to make the point that we should attempt to overcome these biases so that we can make the strongest arguments to back up our ideas in our writing. In other words, it can mean better grades.

"Behind the Lens" via Flickr CC, by tj.blackwell
To me, this overall self-reflection, including trying to understand our own biases, is an overlooked aspect of academic library instruction, even in the chronically short-on-time one shots so many of us are relegated to doing. My workshops, even though I do have the "luxury" of 90 minute sessions, are still one shots. I still struggle to pare down what I cover. But unless students are aware of and able to reflect on their own biases, how can they make effective decisions during the information seeking, synthesizing and writing processes? How can we help them develop the skills to become critical thinkers if they never turn that critical lens on themselves? This doesn't mean we should (or for that matter, can) just ignore our own beliefs or filter out our biases simply by being more aware of them. In fact, some research (1) indicates that being aware of our own biases is not enough to overcome them.

Still, the first bullet point in my institution's College Mission states that we are committed to "critical reflective inquiry." This starts with students and teachers alike reflecting on ourselves and how that shapes how we learn and create new knowledge....
1. For example, from a series of studies in the 1970's by Mynatt, et. al., which are mentioned in this context in an article by Louise Rasmussen here: