The Risk of Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias makes us see what we expect to see. Sometimes with fatal consequences.

When we look at a situation, we often see what we want to see or expect to see. As a result we make mistakes. Psychologists call this type of mistake Confirmation Bias.

You can see this all too plainly at work in this disturbing video which was recently released on the WikiLeaks website.

It’s a video shot from an Apache helicopter’s gunsite which shows the misidentification by the helicopter pilot of a group of men (including two Reuters journalists) as insurgents in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad, and the subsequent massacre of the men and those who went to their aid.

The pilot, apparently sent on a mission where he expects to find and identify insurgents, identifies a group of men walking across a road as insurgents. One of them is possibly carrying a rifle. (Probably a normal personal defense precaution in some areas of Iraq). The journalists’ video and sound equipment is then identified as some sort of missile launcher. Kneeling to take a picture looking down a street looks like getting a missile launcher ready to fire. The pilot confidently reports what he thinks he has seen to his commander as fact and is given permission to open fire.

After the shooting has stopped, a man in a van stopping to assist the wounded becomes more terrorists attempting to remove evidence that the men were armed and the killing continues.

It’s a disturbing video, but it is a classic example of confirmation bias.

Let’s hope our own confirmation bias in identifying risks and threats never has the same tragic consequences.

Postscript – New York Times Square Car Bomb Attempt

Here’s another example of confirmation bias. Look how this video of a man removing a shirt and putting it in his bag became suspicious in the aftermath of the failed New York Times Square bombing.

To me this always looked like nothing more than a man removing an outer piece of clothing on a hot day, putting it in his case, walking off, then looking back to check whether he had left anything behind. But to the police and media searching for clues every action had a different possible interpretation…

Fortunately this unknown suspect was luckier than Jean Charles de Menezes, who police mistook for a suicide bomber and shot dead in the aftermath of the failed 21 July 2005 London bombings.

7 May 2010

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