The fight against confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is something we all experience and I, personally, am very aware of in my own dog training philosophy. This is something I have known about for a long time and periodically it comes up in books I am reading.

For those that don’t know what this is, I will try to summarize:

Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to search for and favor information that confirms their existing beliefs and to disregard information that challenges those beliefs. It is so pervasive in our psyche that we even will take neutral statements, that neither support nor oppose our opinion, and feel that they actually do support our point of view.

This is a well documented feature of human psychology and is supported by many studies. There is a well written (as of this blog post) Wikipedia article that covers this topic. One of the things I like about this particular article is the large quantity of references that are provided including various books, articles and studies that have been done.

A recent example of this is an article I shared on Facebook about aversive collars. In this article, aversive collars refer to collars that require a dog to figure out how to avoid an undesired outcome (ie tightening on the throat or a shock) in order to walk loosely on leash. The article had two major points. The first was about a resurgence in the use of aversive collars in the writer’s local area. The other was about the lack of oversight when it comes to who can set up shop as a dog trainer. Confirmation bias placed this firmly inside my world view.

My share of this article garnered several comments. Most of these comments were in agreement with the article but a few were opposed to the opinions in the article. So I looked around at other shares of this same article and read the comments. It was clear to me that confirmation bias ruled the comments of this article.

Those that already believed that aversive collars should be avoided were lavish with their praise of author and the contents of the article. Those that use and believe in the use of aversive collars were actually quite upset about the contents of the article. Some even made rude comments about the author which had nothing to do with the contents of the article. Quite a few of the opposing viewpoints made it clear they either had not read the article or had stopped paying attention as soon as they got to the viewpoint that opposed their own.

There were also comments agreeing with or disagreeing with the idea that there should be oversight on trainers but these were a bit more mellow. Which is interesting because this was the actual point of the article.

So now to the point of this particular blog post, which should really be at the top and not the bottom. But here it is:

Everyone is influenced by confirmation bias. Me, you, your favorite trainer, your mother, everyone. In order to become better people and better dog trainers and teachers of humans, we need to fight against this ingrained behavior and seek out alternatives. When we are able to look objectively at all sides in a discussion, then we can make an informed decision and make better decisions.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am a proponent of positive reinforcement and, specifically, operant conditioning in dog training. I have moved steadily in this direction over the past several years because I see that it works for me, my dogs and those that I teach. People have been training dogs for a very long time and many more people use a large number of corrections in their training. My confirmation bias leads me towards articles, videos and books that favor my world view. So I try to read opposing view points and consider them carefully. This is very hard for me to do but I try anyway.

When I find something that confirms my opinion, I also try to find the opposing viewpoint. I have read books such as “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor and “Cesar’s Way” by Cesar Milan. I have read articles by positive trainers, balanced trainers and correction based trainers. It is extremely hard to take what balanced and correction based trainers say and try to fit it into my world view but I really do try.

One thing that every single one of these trainers has in common is their own confirmation bias. They firmly believe that their methods are correct and that other methods should be discounted as invalid. With few exceptions, they even go so far as to get very upset when someone suggests they may be incorrect about a particular method of training a particular behavior. If you check the “about” page for most trainers and training facilities, they will talk about the amount of experience they have and how their methods are better because of all this experience, which amounts to even more confirmation bias.

If you have made it this far in my lengthy post, then here is the call to action. I would encourage you to consider multiple points of view when reading any article, reading a book, watching a video, etc. Before just accepting or rejecting the contents because they don’t fit with your world view, think about how the world would be if they were actually correct. Maybe find some opposing view points and consider those. See if you agree or disagree with the statements. If they exist, find some actual scientific studies that support your point of view and some that oppose it. Look objectively at the evidence. Try several options. See which one fits best with your training plan, which one makes you feel the best emotionally. Don’t just discount other ideas because they don’t fit with your personal world view.

I will continue the fight against confirmation bias. I will struggle. I will lose. Because I am human and it is part of our nature. But by considering other opinions, hopefully I will learn and grow as a trainer.


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