The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. Francis Bacon

Have you ever been so convinced of someone’s motivations or intentions, only to learn that your assumptions were way, WAY off base? How does that happen? How could the data have been so convincing the other direction?

Confirmation bias is “selective thinking” whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs. It isn’t really conscious but powerfully influences what we come to believe as true. We look for the data that supports our belief.

I visited family in Texas recently after buying a Toyota Venza. Not a model I was familiar with until car shopping but low and behold, I was seeing them everywhere on I-45 in Houston. My psychologist spouse is certain that confirmation bias was at work, i.e. I was noticing Venzas, which subtly confirms my belief that the Venza is a good car. After all, look how popular they are. Forget that there were thousands of other models on the interstate!

On this same trip, I heard the following story. Henry became convinced that his sister, Cecily, was cozying up to their elderly (wealthy) mother for the sole purpose of getting their mother’s will changed in the sister’s favor. Henry had always been close to Cecily but she was recently divorced, had failed to include Henry on a trip to the funeral home to make pre-planning arrangements, and had secured a new cell phone for mom. Henry built up a head of steam over several months, taking note that Cecily would hardly look at him during family dinners (no doubt because she felt guilty about what she was doing), that she mentioned a new friend who was a lawyer (probably the person who would be writing up the new will), and her car was in the shop, (post-divorce she obviously had money problems and couldn’t afford a new car). Clearly Cecily planned to improve her financial situation by finagling a new will based on how very helpful Cecily had been to mom.

By the time Henry confronted Cecily, he was so hurt and angry, he had difficulty expressing his outrage. Cecily was stunned. Tears flowed rapidly and she was clearly blindsided and hurt. Why? Turns out that Cecily felt so guilty about her self-absorption during the divorce, she determined to step up to help care for their aging mother. She knew Henry had assumed more responsibility over the last year and she was grateful that Henry had been willing to do the lion’s share of work. She wanted to pay him back by doing more than her part for a while. The lack of eye contact during dinner? Yeah, Cecily felt guilty about something all right. She knew the divorce had been very stressful for her mother and Cecily was certain it had contributed to her deteriorating health recently. She had taken responsibility for funeral pre-planning and a new cell phone in an attempt to relieve Henry of those burdens and ease her own guilt. She understood how Henry could have felt marginalized now that she knew what he was thinking and, in retrospect, thought it a mistake rather than a gift to not include him. And the new lawyer friend? She was just a friend whose practice was devoted to business litigation. Never drafted a will in her professional life! And Cecily’s financial position? She was in really good shape now that the divorce was behind her and the car just needed regular service.

What happened with Henry and Cecily? Clearly Henry developed a belief around his sister’s actions and took in only that data that confirmed those beliefs. There was probably contrary data, which could have checked Henry’s assumptions, but it was likely ignored. Beliefs and feelings festered and developed a life of their own.

In my view, the biggest mistake made was the proverbial “failure to communicate.” Henry and Cecily had apparently been close before this interaction. Had Cecily been open about her desire to step up to the plate with their mother, or had Henry expressed his concern about Cecily’s motivations when he first started questioning them, much of the pain and anger could have been averted.

When questions about another’s motivation or caring or behavior arise, hopefully we’ll all remember Cecily and Henry and simply talk.

Wishing you wisdom,

Deborah Bennet Berecz

  1. Asta 11 years ago

    This sort of situation is so common, Deb. Communication can’t be over-rated. Your post is a good reminder.

    • Author
      Deborah 11 years ago

      Thanks Asta. So easy to forget that the other person might have a completely different frame of reference.

  2. Judy Goodwin 11 years ago

    I enjoyed your article – good job!

  3. Deb 11 years ago

    May I print this article in a church newsletter? It only gets sent to about 40 email addresses (in a PDF document) and to about 30 mailing addresses. A permissions statement will be included. Thanks!

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