Confirmation Bias (Part One): How to Counter Your Audience’s Pre-Existing Beliefs

Legendary risk communication expert Peter Sandman offers sage advice on how to handle confirmation bias when advocating about risk.

Confirmation bias is the universal tendency of human beings to hang onto what they already believe in the face of evidence to the contrary. You may know it by its endearing nickname, “myside bias,” which nicely captures its essence.

I’m not talking about intentional bias. That happens too. People sometimes go hunting for evidence that they’re right and then intentionally distort what they find, consciously building a biased case in hopes of winning an argument. Confirmation bias is unintentional. It’s how we win our internal arguments, how we convince ourselves we’re right.

Since this is a risk communication column, I want to focus here on the implications of confirmation bias for risk communicators. Your audience members are sure to filter your warnings and reassurances through their own preexisting opinions about what’s safe and what isn’t, resisting anything you say that tries to change their views. How should this fact affect your messaging?

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