Confirmation Bias & The Tragedy of Certainty


“If you board the wrong train,
it’s no use running along the corridor
in the other direction.”

~ the fascinating & courageous theologian,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

How do you KNOW?
And what do you do with that belief?

© By Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, A.C.T., MCC, SCAC
Foundational Concepts of the Intentionality Series
Opinions vs. Facts

Facts, Suppositions, Extrapolations & Opinions

Another delightful Martin illustration of a woman with a question mark on her tee shirt, holding a sheet of paper in each hand, each printed with a single word : FACT or OPINION.In the past two years, I have been reading a large number of “neuroscience” books — which means, of course, that I have been reading the opinions of neuroscientists that they have put forward into book form.

Here on, I shared my reaction to the various opinions in the first of what will become a Series of writings about opinion and fact:

(Science and Sensibility – The Illusion of Proof: Observation: Anecdotal Report and Science ).

Another article, the geneses of the one you are reading right now, was written for Hazel Owens Ethos Consultancy community, intended to became the second post of my new Series.

CLICK HERE for the Ethos Article: The Tragedy of Certainty
(great comments on that post)

In response to a spate of recent email questions, I decided to cross-post, after a fashion, repeating the foundational concepts of that post here on this blog.


I recently polished off an eBook by Dr. Ginger Campbell,  Are You Sure? — The Unconscious Origins of CertaintyGinger hosts the excellent Brain Science Podcast, one of the best brain-based resources in the podcast universe.

Ginger’s synopsis of some of the major themes of certainty was prompted by her two-part discussion of a book by neuroscientist-turned-novelist, Dr. Robert Burton (On Certainty: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not), which included an interview with the author.

  • Ginger’s brilliance is her ability to distill the essence of the thinking of others into words that make the ideas accessible to those who are relatively new to the topic.
  • I highly recommend her eBook, even if you struggle with reading, and especially if you lack the time to read a longer development of the topic.

In any case, with the “opinion or fact” series I am jumping into the long-standing catfight between neuroscience and psychology with a third point of view that will form the backbone of this particular series of articles: the importance of listening from belief to anecdotal report, remaining diligently aware of our innate tendency toward confirmation bias.

Remember – links on this site are dark grey to reduce distraction potential
while you’re reading. They turn red on mouseover.
This article is link-dense

Confirmation Bias

There has been a great deal of research and writing on the implications of concept of confirmation bias, so many of us already have a familiarity with the expression.


The Intractibility of Expertise

Those of us who are well-educated tend to be some of the most intractable. By the time we become adults, we’ve put a lot of time and energy into compiling a body of knowledge we like to consider our “expertise.”

  • Additional information that adds to our body of knowledge confirms the rightness of our beliefs and, by extension, our self-concept.
  • New input that seems to contradict our beliefs, by extension, seems to invalidate us somehow.
  • Even when we consciously understand and embrace the reality that people are different and that absolutes and total congruencies are unlikely, we often tend to feel threatened by the evidence of conflicting possibilities.

The Myth of the Love of Learning

Most of us love to KNOW – learning is a necessary “in order to” goal on the pathway to knowledge.

  • In order for us to learn anything at all, we must begin with not knowing. Otherwise we are simply deepening the entrenchment of the known, not learning much of anything new.
  • Most of us find the process of acquiring new knowledge frustratingly uncomfortable. “Not knowing” pits us against our brain’s hunger for certainty.
  • Said another way, not knowing makes us feel stupid.

I have observed that even children who, the stories assert, have an innate love of learning until inadequate education systems beat it out of them, don’t ever really enjoy learning a new task or bit of information in the same way they enjoy acting out what they already know as they play.

  • They are extremely frustrated by the process of moving from not-knowing to knowing.
  • What they like about the learning game is the positive feedback from social interaction that comes once they HAVE learned.

Life-long learners have internalized the “attaboy” pleasure; drop-outs probably didn’t get enough positive feedback to stay on the learning pathway. Writing in Psychological Science, Smith et. al. (2008) report that when randomly assigned participants are made to feel powerless they become worse at keeping on top of changing information.


The feeling of KNOWING

We are all familiar with the feeling of knowing.  Even when we cannot retrieve information, like somebody’s name, for example, we somehow know that we know it, and we can usually recognize it when it is set before us.

When we’re struggling to understand a concept or locate the error behind a checkbook that won’t balance, the aha! moment is another manifestation of that marvelous feeling of knowing.

We are also familiar with the feeling of cognitive dissonance, a term coined in 1957 by Stanford professor Leon Festinger to describe the unsettling “That CAN’T be right!” feeling, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is.

  • Festinger described cognitive dissonance as a distressing mental state where people find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know or what they have consciously chosen, or holding opinions incongruent with other opinions that they have researched and embrace.
  • The concept underlying cognitive dissonance is that the more committed we are to a belief, the harder it is to relinquish, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.

We tend to go with what feels right, regardless of the evidence. Sometimes that “instinct” serves us, but many times it only serves to keep us stuck in paradigms that don’t.

What causes the feeling of certainty?

Because there are some medical conditions and brain injuries where the feeling of knowing gets distorted, neuroscience is relatively certain about a few of the particular parts of the brain that are involved. The recent contributions of Affective Neuroscience point to the body’s importance in the process.

Even when the neurological damage accompanying a distorted feeling of knowing is substantially different, the subjects of the reported studies all tended to choose in favor of what they felt, even when they had to come up with tortured logic to support their conclusions.

The Course of the Development of the Human Brain

hmmmmWhat might be the evolutionary advantage
of an unjustified feeling of knowing?

It would seem as if our fear response, developed to keep us alive, is somehow intertwined with our drive toward certainty.  Scientists specializing in embodied cognition have demonstrated that brain and body working in consort confer a speed of response advantage.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that knowledge and the awareness of knowledge arise from different regions in the brain.

With blind-sight, for example, individuals with damage to the part of the brain allowing them to have conscious awareness of vision are still able to act in ways that show that visual information is none-the-less reaching other parts of their brain, even though they have no conscious awareness of being able to see.

Joseph LeDoux‘s rodent sound/shock experiment showed that removing the auditory cortex had no effect on the fear response, showing that there is an acoustic pathway that actually by-passes the auditory cortex.

  • A rat doesn’t have to be aware of the paired sound to feel fear.
  • It does, however, have to have a functioning amygdala.

Subsequent experiments, both animal and human studies, seem to confirm the role of the amygdala in the fear response.

Human beings with damage to the amygdala are fearless to the extent that they often will be observed to act in very foolish, if not dangerous ways.

But why would our physiology
favor feeling over logic?

RedNose1The feeling of fear helps us make rapid, effective decisions in certain situations by avoiding decisions that would put us in danger, as well as the time it might expose us to danger were we to stop to deliberate.

Cognition – thinking and the awareness of thought – involves the most recently developed part of the brain, the cerebral cortex.

The emotional element of certainty (as well as it’s opposite, fear of uncertainty), seems to involve a connection between the rest of the body and the older parts of the brain, including the cingulate gyrus, amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and basal forebrain structures — areas that, in the past, have been called the limbic system.

  • It has been discovered that seizures involving certain “limbic” structures can trigger a feeling of familiarity or déjà vu.
  • The opposite can also happen — a sensation that objects in the physical world are unreal, so life itself seems to be a dream or an out-of-body experience.

Studies indicate that our sense of whether something is familiar or foreign, real or illusory, dangerous or safe, accurate or fallacious, is not really a conscious conclusion because it’s coming from lower, older parts of the brain over which we have no conscious access or control.

Cognitive Over-ride

If we hope to take advantage of the helpful applications of this dynamic and avoid falling prey to its disadvantages, we must remember to employ our most recent resources: remembering to use the cognitive over-ride of the Executive Centers in the prefrontal cortex.

Dr. Burton has this to say about it all:

“My goal is to strip away the power of certainty by exposing its involuntary neurological roots. If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas.

He admits that he has no idea if he has become more tolerant in the process of writing an entire book about the unconscious drive toward certainty, but he goes on to say that he believes that remaining aware of the concept is likely to do so.

I do recognize that other people’s opinions arise out of separate lines of reasoning than mine, and that in nonscientific matters there is no litmus test to know with certainty who is correct . . .  

I’m aware of the fact that they’re not starting from the same position. Just that alone is helpful.

Burton’s quote brings me full circle, back to listening from belief,”  which you can read more about by clicking HERE for the introductory article.

I hope that you will stay tuned for subsequent articles in this series, and that you will add your opinions and reactions in the comment’s section – both here and on

Remaining aware of the tendency seems to me to be one of the few ways to work around confirmation bias and the down-side of our quest for certainty.

Unless we make a special point of developing the habit of listening from belief, we run the risk of never knowing much more than we know right now — and of, quite possibly, inadvertently shutting down another who has not yet internalized the “attaboy” joy of learning on the pathway to knowing.
~ mgh


A few other books informing my thinking on The Tragedy of Certainty

  • In Search of Memory, Eric Kandel
  • Mindsight, Daniel Siegel
  • Incognito, David Eagleman
  • The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio
  • The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doige
  • Thought Without a Thinker, Mark Epstein
  • essays on The Mind, edited by John Pinker
    (authors include Ramachandran, Gopnik, Zimbardo Lakoff etc.)
  • Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett
  • The Other Brain, Doug Fields
  • Rhythms of Life, Russell Foster, Leon Kreitzman
  • The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, Sandra & Ron Blakeslee

A more complete book-list can be found by clicking BRAIN-BASED BOOKS (links to other booklists included).

As always, if you want notification of new articles in this series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too) STRICT No Spam Policy

If you’d like some one-on-one (or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this article (either for your own life, that of a loved one, or as coaching skills development), click the E-me link <—here (or on the menubar at the top of every page) and I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

Related Articles on

BY THE WAY: Since is an Evergreen Site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, comment (or follow), you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.



About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

21 Responses to Confirmation Bias & The Tragedy of Certainty

  1. Pingback: Link between Gluten & ADD/ADHD? | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Pingback: Understanding the link between anxiety & self-harm | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  3. Pingback: Why we hate to change our minds | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  4. Pingback: Smoking: Additional reasons why it’s SO hard to quit | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  5. Pingback: Tinkerbell Comments – scorn and disbelief | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  6. Pingback: Don’t Drink the Kool-ade | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  7. Pingback: Slow-cooking CHANGE | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  8. Pingback: My way IS the Highway? | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  9. Pingback: Distinguishing Can’t from Won’t | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  10. Pingback: Complex PTSD Awareness | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  11. Pingback: The Brain: Why much of what you think you know is WRONG | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  12. Pingback: Medication Fears | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  13. Pingback: Medications vs. Non-Pharm Alternatives | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  14. Pingback: Science and Sensibility – the illusion of proof | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  15. Pingback: Brain-hacking – Moving Beyond the Brain you were Born With | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  16. Pingback: Life Success on YOUR Terms | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  17. Pingback: I am NOT a Lab Rat! | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  18. Pingback: Pitiful Party Lines & Flying Monkeys | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

    Posted on my FaceBook Page from an “old” friend from even before my Woodson High School years, Doug Clapp, included here with his permission: “feel free to use it and my name. Honored, dear friend.”
    (paragraphing below mine to help focus for the ADDers who “read from rock to rock”)

    “Love the Bonhoeffer quote and your most excellent piece, Lyn, on confirmation bias!

    As you wrote: “We tend to go with what feels right, regardless of the evidence. Sometimes that “instinct” serves us, but many times it only serves to keep us stuck in paradigms that don’t.”

    Fox News has become the confirmation crutch of those who are inherently suspicious and fearful of change. The oligarchs want to keep us politically indecisive and frozen, fearful of “progress” or of leaving the perceived relative safety of one’s former status quo.

    I say former, because their “safe status quo” no longer exists…which I think explains why the Teabots want to force a return to a time when women and minorities in particular were relatively “under control.”

    Of course, the oligarchs pander to those fears and control desires in order to secure the fearfuls’ political support (against their own rational interests) for the oligarchs’ agenda. Sad to see them played so shamelessly. ~ Doug Clapp

    AS YOU CAN TELL – like me, my friends hold their opinions strongly – and THAT’s why they’re my friends!

    BY THE WAY: Jr/Sr High School was the ONLY time in my life some wild teen impulse led me to experiment with truncating my name to “Lyn.”

    It didn’t work for me – changed back immediately in college, and only a few of my HS buds still call me what they did then – fine for them, but not for anyone else, ok? I’m not cool with Madelyn nicknames of any sort anymore. (If Madelyn is a mouthful, mgh works for me!)


  20. mebou4uk says:

    Inner certainty is neither right nor wrong at the end of the day. Our reasons for certainty are often proved wrong. Everyone’s thinking is different. We will never get everyone to think the same or believe the same things. Inner certainty is important as it gives us a point of departure in forming our lives. Our beliefs are formed and changed along the way. I feel the most important thing is to realize that my beliefs are just that, MY beliefs. They should never be forced on anyone. Everyone’s inner beliefs and certainty are just as valid for them. Acceptance of and respect for these differences is the key.

    Liked by 1 person

And what do YOU think? I'm interested.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: