Most of us at one time or another have announced to a group that we’re just playing the devil’s advocate. What we mean, of course, is that we are taking on a line of negative questioning designed to help test the strength of an idea. The origin of the devil’s advocate actually lies with the history of the Catholic church. The devil’s advocate was a member of the clergy appointed to provide arguments against the canonization of a candidate for sainthood.
The purpose of the devil’s advocate was to work against our inherent bias toward information that conforms toward our existing beliefs. We tend to focus on information that falls in line with what we already know. Essentially, this bias confirms our beliefs because we have given that information additional weight or value and is therefore referred to as the confirmation bias.
Confirmation Bias: Pro or Con?
Being able to discount negative information is a benefit of confirmation bias. It helps us downplay information that just doesn’t make sense based upon our prior beliefs. In other words, if someone proposes something that is nonsensical, our brains use confirmation bias to prevent us from giving weight to that information. It protects beliefs from being swayed all over the place by the information that we are receiving.
Confirmation bias works well, but only to a certain point. Our beliefs aren’t always true and there is plenty of information out there that would help us question those beliefs if we are able to look at it objectively. The problem is that confirmation bias encourages us to downplay evidence that disagrees with us.
Confirmation bias is a way of engaging in self-deception and it can be dangerous. It can encourage us to only seek evidence for a belief that we already hold while ignoring or minimizing evidence that disagrees with us. It can also encourage us to interpret information in a way that supports our beliefs or have us rationalize contradictory evidence away.
Confirmation Bias at Home
While we could certainly apply the problems caused by confirmation bias to our current political environment, there are better examples closer to home. Have you ever accused the obvious culprit of a spilled drink in your kitchen without any evidence that it was that child? Or do you assume that your perfect angel could not have done anything wrong at school when you get that phone call from the principal or teacher?
As parents, we fall into the trap of letting our confirmation bias run rampant all the time. Challenging it can mean challenging our world view which is uncomfortable. Yet, we owe it to our children to let the devil’s advocate into the conversation.
Engaging Your Inner Devil’s Advocate
When we grill our children about misbehavior or school problems, can we ask different questions that push our assumptions out of our comfort zone? As you digest the information that you receive and ask additional questions, think about what kind of information you might receive later on that would challenge the belief that you are establishing? What evidence would change our mind down the road? Thinking this way can help prime us to potentially receive this information and incorporated into the decisions that we are making in the future. It might not change our belief structure right now, but it might later on.
In science, one of the strongest ways to combat confirmation bias is to use the null hypothesis. The hypothesis is our guess that the intervention we are studying has a significant impact. The null hypothesis, on the other hand, assumes that there was no impact. Experiments are designed to help find information that will prove the null hypothesis is accurate. As you have a parenting conversation, think about what the null hypothesis is for the situation that you are dealing with. What questions would you ask that would prove the null hypothesis? What would you need to know?
Bringing the devil’s advocate can get us to parent from outside the confirmation bias and maybe encourage us to think a little deeper about the parenting assumptions that we are making.