How We Can Individually Combat Misinformation Online

1. Correlation vs Causation

My mother-in-law recently complained to me: “Whenever I try to text message, my phone freezes.” A quick look at her smartphone confirmed my suspicion: she had five game apps open at the same time plus Facebook and YouTube. The act of trying to send a text message wasn’t causing the freeze, the lack of RAM was. But she immediately connected it with the last action she was doing before the freeze.

She was implying a causation where there was only a correlation (1)

“Correlation is not causation” is a statistics mantra. It is drilled, military school-style, into every budding statistician. But what does it actually mean? Well, correlation is a measure of how closely related two things are. Think of it as a number describing the relative change in one thing when there is a change in the other, with 1 being a strong positive relationship between two sets of numbers, –1 being a strong negative relationship and 0 being no relationship whatsoever.Advertisement

“Correlation is not causation” means that just because two things correlate does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. As a seasonal example, just because people in the UK tend to spend more in the shops when it’s cold and less when it’s hot doesn’t mean cold weather causes frenzied high-street spending. A more plausible explanation would be that cold weather tends to coincide with Christmas and the new year sales.

Despite embodying an important truth, the phrase has not caught on in the wider world. It’s easy to see why. Our preconceptions and suspicions about the way things work tempt us to make the leap from correlation to causation without any hard evidence.

Correlations between two things can be caused by a third factor that affects both of them. This sneaky, hidden third wheel is called a confounder.

Arguably the most well known and important example of a correlation being clear but caustion being in doubt concerned smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s. There had been a sixfold increase in the rate of lung cancer in the preceding two decades. Nobody disputed that there was a correlation between lung cancer and smoking, but to prove that one caused the other would be no mean feat.

There might be a confounder that was responsible for the correlation between smoking and lung cancer. The increased rate could have been the result of better diagnosis, more industrial pollution or more cars on the roads belching noxious fumes. Perhaps people who were more genetically predisposed to want to smoke were also more susceptible to getting cancer?

It took a study involving more than 40,000 doctors in the UK to show conclusively that smoking really does cause cancer. (2)

2. How Confirmation Bias Works

Examples of confirmation bias
Verywell / Daniel Fishel 

Where do your beliefs and opinions come from? If you’re like most people, you feel that your convictions are rational, logical, and impartial, based on the result of years of experience and objective analysis of the information you have available.

In reality, all of us are susceptible to a tricky problem known as a confirmation bias. Our beliefs are often based on paying attention to the information that upholds them—while at the same time tending to ignore the information that challenges them.

Understanding Confirmation Bias

A confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias that involves favoring information that confirms your previously existing beliefs or biases.1

For example, imagine that a person holds a belief that left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people. Whenever this person encounters a person that is both left-handed and creative, they place greater importance on this “evidence” that supports what they already believe. This individual might even seek proof that further backs up this belief while discounting examples that don’t support the idea.

Confirmation biases impact how we gather information, but they also influence how we interpret and recall information. For example, people who support or oppose a particular issue will not only seek information to support it, they will also interpret news stories in a way that upholds their existing ideas. They will also remember details in a way that reinforces these attitudes.

Confirmation Biases in Action

Consider the debate over gun control. Let’s say Sally is in support of gun control. She seeks out news stories and opinion pieces that reaffirm the need for limitations on gun ownership. When she hears stories about shootings in the media, she interprets them in a way that supports her existing beliefs.

Henry, on the other hand, is adamantly opposed to gun control. He seeks out news sources that are aligned with his position. When he comes across news stories about shootings, he interprets them in a way that supports his current point of view.

These two people have very different opinions on the same subject and their interpretations are based on their beliefs. Even if they read the same story, their bias tends to shape the way they perceive the details, further confirming their beliefs.

Impact of Confirmation Bias

In the 1960s, cognitive psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason conducted a number of experiments known as Wason’s rule discovery task. He demonstrated that people have a tendency to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs. Unfortunately, this type of bias can prevent us from looking at situations objectively. It can also influence the decisions we make and lead to poor or faulty choices.

During an election season, for example, people tend to seek positive information that paints their favored candidates in a good light. They will also look for information that casts the opposing candidate in a negative light.

By not seeking out objective facts, interpreting information in a way that only supports their existing beliefs, and only remembering details that uphold these beliefs, they often miss important information. These details and facts might have otherwise influenced their decision on which candidate to support.

Expert Observations

In his book Research in Psychology: Methods and Design, C. James Goodwin gives an example of confirmation bias as it applies to extrasensory perception.2

“Persons believing in extrasensory perception (ESP) will keep close track of instances when they were ‘thinking about Mom, and then the phone rang and it was her!’ Yet they ignore the far more numerous times when (a) they were thinking about Mom and she didn’t call and (b) they weren’t thinking about Mom and she did call.

“They also fail to recognize that if they talk to Mom about every two weeks, their frequency of ‘thinking about Mom’ will increase near the end of the two-week-interval, thereby increasing the frequency of a ‘hit.'”

As Catherine A. Sanderson points out in her book Social Psychology, confirmation bias also helps form and re-confirm stereotypes we have about people:3 “We also ignore information that disputes our expectations. We are more likely to remember (and repeat) stereotype-consistent information and to forget or ignore stereotype-inconsistent information, which is one way stereotypes are maintained even in the face of disconfirming evidence.

“If you learn that your new Canadian friend hates hockey and loves sailing, and that your new Mexican friend hates spicy foods and loves rap music, you are less likely to remember this new stereotype-inconsistent information.”

Confirmation bias is not only found in our personal beliefs, it can affect our professional endeavors as well. In the book Psychology, Peter O. Gray offers this example of how confirmation bias may affect a doctor’s diagnosis.4

“Groopman (2007) points out that the confirmation bias can couple with the availability bias in producing misdiagnosis in a doctor’s office. A doctor who has jumped to a particular hypothesis as to what disease a patient has may then ask questions and look for evidence that tends to confirm that diagnosis while overlooking evidence that would tend to disconfirm it.

“Groopman suggests that medical training should include a course in inductive reasoning that would make new doctors aware of such biases. Awareness, he thinks, would lead to fewer diagnostic errors. A good diagnostician will test his or her initial hypothesis by searching for evidence against that hypothesis.”

Unfortunately, we all have confirmation bias. Even if you believe you are very open-minded and only observe the facts before coming to conclusions, it’s very likely that some bias will shape your opinion in the end. It’s very difficult to combat this natural tendency.

That said, if we know about confirmation bias and accept the fact that it does exist, we can make an effort to recognize it by working to be curious about opposing views and really listening to what others have to say and why. This can help us better see issues and beliefs from another perspective, though we still need to be very conscious of wading past our confirmation bias. (3)

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so this conflict causes feelings of unease or discomfort.

This inconsistency between what people believe and how they behave motivates people to engage in actions that will help minimize feelings of discomfort. People attempt to relieve this tension in different ways, such as by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information.

How Do You Know?

Everyone experiences cognitive dissonance to some degree, but that doesn’t mean that it is always easy to recognize. Some signs that what you are feeling might be related to dissonance include:

  • Feeling uncomfortable before doing something or making a decision
  • Trying to justify or rationalize a decision that you’ve made or an action you have taken
  • Feeling embarrassed or ashamed about something you’ve done and trying to hide your actions from other people
  • Experiencing guilt or regret about something you’ve done in the past
  • Doing things because of social pressure or a fear of missing out (FOMO), even if it wasn’t something you wanted to do


There are a number of different situations that can create conflicts that lead to cognitive dissonance.

Forced Compliance

Sometimes you might find yourself engaging in behaviors that are opposed to your own beliefs due to external expectations, often for work, school, or a social situation.1 This might involve going along with something due to peer pressure or doing something at work to avoid getting fired.

New Information

Sometimes learning new information can lead to feelings of cognitive dissonance. For example, if you engage in a behavior that you later learn is harmful, it can lead to feelings of discomfort. People sometimes deal with this either by finding ways to justify their behaviors or findings ways to discredit or ignore new information.


People make decisions, both large and small, on a daily basis. When faced with two similar choices, people often are left with feelings of dissonance because both options are equally appealing.

Once a choice has been made, however, people need to find a way to reduce these feelings of discomfort. People accomplish this by justifying why their choice was the best option so that they can believe that they made the right decision.


The degree of dissonance people experience can depend on a few different factors, including how highly they value a particular belief and the degree to which their beliefs are inconsistent.

The overall strength of the dissonance can also be influenced by several factors, including:2 

  • The importance attached to each belief. Cognitions that are more personal, such as beliefs about the self, and highly valued tend to result in greater dissonance.
  • The number of dissonant beliefs. The more dissonant (clashing) thoughts you have the greater the strength of the dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance can often have a powerful influence on our behaviors and actions. It doesn’t just influence how you feel—it also motivates you to take action to reduce feelings of discomfort.


Cognitive dissonance can make people feel uneasy and uncomfortable, particularly if the disparity between their beliefs and behaviors involves something that is central to their sense of self. For example, behaving in ways that are not aligned with your personal values may result in intense feelings of discomfort. Your behavior contradicts not just the beliefs you have about the world, but also the beliefs that you have about yourself.

This discomfort can manifest itself in a variety of ways. People may feel:

  • Anxiety
  • Embarrassment
  • Regret
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Stress

Cognitive dissonance can even influence how people feel about and view themselves, leading to negative feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.

Because people want to avoid this discomfort, cognitive dissonance can have a wide range of effects. Dissonance can play a role in how people act, think, and make decisions. They may engage in behaviors or adopt attitudes to help relieve the discomfort caused by the conflict.

Some things that a person might do to cope with these feelings include:

  • Adopting beliefs or ideas to help justify or explain away the conflict between their beliefs or behaviors. This can sometimes involve blaming other people or outside factors.
  • Hiding their beliefs or behaviors from other people. People may feel ashamed of their conflicting beliefs and behaviors, so hiding the disparity from others can help minimize feelings of shame and guilt.
  • Only seeking out information that confirms their existing beliefs. This phenomenon, known as the confirmation bias, affects the ability to think critically about a situation but helps minimize feelings of dissonance.

People like to believe that they are logical, consistent, and good at making decisions. Cognitive dissonance can interfere with the perceptions people hold about themselves and their abilities, which is why it can often feel so uncomfortable and unpleasant.

Dealing With Dissonance

When there are conflicts between cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, opinions), people will take steps to reduce the dissonance and feelings of discomfort. They can go about doing this a few different ways, such as:

  • Adding more supportive beliefs that outweigh dissonant beliefs. People who learn that greenhouse emissions result in global warming might experience feelings of dissonance if they drive a gas-guzzling vehicle. In order to reduce this dissonance, they may seek out new information that overrides the belief that greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming.
  • Reducing the importance of the conflicting belief. A man who cares about his health might be disturbed to learn that sitting for long periods of time during the day is linked to a shortened lifespan. Since he has to work all day in an office and spends a great deal of time sitting, it is difficult to change his behavior. To deal with the feelings of discomfort, he might instead find some way of rationalizing the conflicting cognition. He might justify his sedentary behavior by saying that his other healthy behaviors—like eating sensibly and occasionally exercising—make up for his largely sedentary lifestyle.
  • Changing your belief. Changing the conflicting cognition is one of the most effective ways of dealing with dissonance, but it is also one of the most difficult, particularly in the case of deeply held values and beliefs, such as religious or political leanings.2

Potential Pitfalls

Sometimes, the ways that people resolve cognitive dissonance can contribute to unhealthy behaviors or poor decisions.

In “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” Leon Festinger, the psychologist who first described this phenomenon, gave an example of how a person might deal with dissonance related to a health behavior by discussing individuals who continue to smoke, even though they know it is bad for their health.

There are a few ways that a person might resolve this dissonance:

  • According to Festinger, a person might decide that they value smoking more than they value health, deeming the behavior “worth it” in terms of risks versus rewards.2
  • Another way to deal with this dissonance is to minimize potential drawbacks. The smoker might convince themselves that the negative health effects have been overstated. They might also assuage their health concerns by believing that they cannot avoid every possible risk out there.2
  • Festinger also suggested that people might try to convince themselves that if they do stop smoking, they will then gain weight, which also presents health risks. By using such explanations, the smoker is able to reduce the dissonance and continue the behavior.

History of Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger first proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance centered on how people try to reach internal consistency.3 He suggested that people have an inner need to ensure that their beliefs and behaviors are consistent. Inconsistent or conflicting beliefs lead to disharmony, which people strive to avoid.

In his 1957 book, “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” Festinger explained, “Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads toward activity oriented toward hunger-reduction. It is a very different motivation from what psychologists are used to dealing with but, as we shall see, nonetheless powerful.”2

Cognitive dissonance plays a role in many value judgments, decisions, and evaluations. Becoming aware of how conflicting beliefs impact the decision-making process is a great way to improve your ability to make faster and more accurate choices.4

Mismatches between your beliefs and your actions can lead to feelings of discomfort (and, sometimes, coping choices that have negative impacts), but such feelings can also sometimes lead to change and growth.






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