Lesson 3
Duration:
1 class period

Confirmation and Other Biases

Essential Questions

  • How can people have vastly different understandings of the basic facts of a situation?
  • What is confirmation bias and how does it relate to our implicit biases?

Overview

This is the first of two lessons that explore the ways in which biases affect news and information—how news is created and reported (by journalists and others) and how we interpret it. The lesson begins with an activity that helps students experience confirmation bias firsthand. Then, students gain context for their experience by hearing from experts about how confirmation bias operates in all of us. Finally, we set the stage for the ongoing discussion about the challenges of separating fact from fiction by listening to a National Public Radio story about efforts to correct rumors and fake news.

Learning Goals

  • Students will be able to define and understand explicit, implicit, and confirmation bias.
  • Students will be able to examine why people sometimes maintain their beliefs in the face of information that refutes them.

Context

The identity conversations from the previous lessons provide a good segue into discussions of bias. The main focus of this lesson will be on helping students understand a particular kind of bias—confirmation bias—but you may want to share definitions of confirmation bias in the context of implicit and explicit bias. 

  • Bias is a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others, which often results in treating some people unfairly. 
  • Explicit bias refers to attitudes and beliefs (positive or negative) that we consciously or deliberately hold and express about a person or group. Explicit and implicit biases can sometimes contradict each other. 
  • Implicit bias includes attitudes and beliefs (positive or negative) about other people, ideas, issues, or institutions that occur outside of our conscious awareness and control, which affect our opinions and behavior. Everyone has implicit biases—even people who try to remain objective (e.g., judges and journalists)—that they have developed over a lifetime. However, people can work to combat and change these biases.
  • Confirmation bias, or the selective collection of evidence, is our subconscious tendency to seek and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs, ideas, expectations, and/or hypotheses. Therefore, confirmation bias is both affected by and feeds our implicit biases. It can be most entrenched around beliefs and ideas that we are strongly attached to or that provoke a strong emotional response.

The term confirmation bias was coined by English psychologist Peter Wason. He devised a test (known as the Wason Rule Discovery Test) to demonstrate that most people do not effectively test their hypotheses (or beliefs). Instead of trying to falsify a hypothesis to test it, people tend to try to confirm it (as seen in the video included in this lesson). 

If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of bias, watch our video "Diffusing Bias" that features Binna Kandola, a psychologist and diversity scholar, discussing different types of biases and ways individuals can work to minimize their impact.

Materials

Activities

  1. Experience Confirmation Bias

    The following video illustrates the Wason Rule Discovery Test to introduce the idea of confirmation bias.

    • Play “Can You Solve This?” Stop the video at 1:10 and ask students if they can guess the rule. Ask them to explain their thinking. Then play the video to the end. Why do people have trouble guessing the rule?
    • What can we conclude from this video about the challenges we face when we try to make sense and judge the veracity of the news and information that we receive via friends, the Internet, social media, etc.?

    Instead of watching the video, students can also experience the Wason Rule Discovery Test themselves through this interactive puzzle version of the test from New York Times.

  2. Define Confirmation Bias

    Before viewing the video below, provide the definitions of explicit bias and implicit bias (from the Context section) and of predisposition (the tendency to hold a particular attitude or act in a particular way). Then screen and discuss the video “Defining Confirmation Bias.” (You may want to distribute the transcript for later reference and to support note taking and understanding.)

    • Ask students: What is confirmation bias and how does it work? How might it help explain the differences we saw in the New York Times poll in the last lesson? What strategies did you learn in the “Can You Solve This?” activity that could help offset our tendencies toward confirmation bias? (Instead of trying to prove a hypothesis or belief, look for explanations or facts that disprove it.)
    • How might confirmation bias influence the way people select and respond to news and information? How does confirmation bias affect our ability to judge the accuracy of information, whether it be from a news story or something else that we see on the Internet?
  3. Explore the Persistence of Misinformation

    Confirmation bias is often deeply entrenched in our emotional response to ideas, issues, and beliefs, making it particularly challenging to counteract. Plenty of Internet and social media sources exploit our emotional response (so-called “click bait”). Unfortunately, as we will see in this activity, this kind of viral misinformation can be particularly difficult to correct.

    • Play the NPR report “Digital Culture Critic Abandons ‘Fake on the Internet’ Column”, which explores the decision by the Washington Post to discontinue a newspaper column dedicated to correcting viral misinformation online. As students listen to the story, have them note words, phrases, or ideas that help to explain why it is so difficult to correct misinformation. What are some of the reasons why people create and share what turns out to be rumor or misinformation? Why do you think these rumors are so hard to stop?
    • At the conclusion of the story, use the 3-2-1 teaching strategy to review what students have learned in this lesson about confirmation bias and how our biases affect the way we respond to news and information.
  4. Offer Time for Journal Reflection

    Wrap up the lesson by asking students to reflect privately in their journals on what they learned about confirmation bias, including how they think confirmation bias might apply to the police video or “Street Calculus” cartoon from the last lesson. They might also think about a time when confirmation bias may have affected their response to a particular situation or information.

Extensions

  1.  Experience Selective Attention Bias

    Selective attention is part of what drives confirmation bias. It is the conscious or subconscious act of narrowing our focus in an attempt to eliminate irrelevant details that might interfere with our ability to discern important elements of a situation or issue. While we all rely on this instinct to avoid danger and make sense of the world around us, selective attention can also be driven by our biases in ways that are problematic. For example, stereotypes can be affirmed through selective attention to examples of behavior that conforms to the overgeneralization.

    When it comes to information, selective attention can cause us to pay more attention to a message or information that is consistent with our existing viewpoints, feelings, and ideas. For example, if we believe that a political party or candidate is generally bad for the country, we might selectively pay attention to negative news and commentary about that party or person. “The Monkey Business Illusion,” a video based on research conducted by experimental psychologist Daniel Simons, reveals the way that selective attention bias affects what we notice and what we don’t.

    • Play “The Monkey Business Illusion” and tell students to keep track of the number of passes made by the white-shirted team. Stop the video at 0:45, when the screen displays the words “Did you spot the gorilla?” Ask students who got the right answer for the number of passes, and then ask how many of them spotted the gorilla. Play the rest of the video.
    • Acknowledge that this is a forced situation because they were told what to look at. However, ask students why they think so many people missed the gorilla (and missed the black-shirted student leaving and the curtain changing color). Ask: What did you learn from this experience about yourself and about people in general? How do you think selective attention influences people’s ideas and behavior in the real world? You may want to share the definition of selective attention to help students explain what happened.
  2. Test Your Implicit Biases

    To better understand implicit or unconscious bias, psychologists at Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington have designed an implicit bias test known as the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. The test is designed to help detect the implicit or subconscious biases that shape our thinking.

    One of the conclusions that researchers of implicit bias have reached is that all of us, to some degree or another, possess biases that affect how we perceive the world. At the same time, researchers have found that our conscious attitudes and beliefs can change in spite of these biases.

    • Introduce the IAT and invite students to choose an implicit bias test to take as homework (there are 14 options focused on different biases). Let them know that this exercise is personal and you do not expect them to share the results. Before they take the test, ask them to record in their journals what they expect to find out from taking their chosen test. After they have taken the test, they should reflect on the results, whether anything surprised them, and how it made them feel.
    • During the following class period, ask volunteers to share how they felt about the experience and what the results made them think about.

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