Understand your behaviour [1/2] Labelling and the confirmation bias

What Disney princess are you? What’s your pizza type? What’s your celebrity alter ego?

When looking up “personality quizzes”, Google returns no less than 654,000,000 results (yep, that’s 654 MILLION results). And no wonder, since many of these are just fun quizzes that don’t take more than a few minutes. They give you instant gratification with no chance of challenging your worldview or your view on yourself too much.

The need to label everything, including ourselves and the ones around us, from the most macro to the most micro level, is hardwired in our DNA. If you think about it, anything in the known Universe has also been identified, classified, and named. And while labelling does not sound right when coming to people (going along the idea of keeping an open mind), we of course do it as well. We don’t label in a mean or derogatory way (like stereotyping), most of the times we do it in general, neutral or maybe even in positive ways – we apply labels naturally, instinctually, and there are also whole fields dedicated to scientific labelling (psychology, sociology being just two to mention).

Let’s stop in this article on three concepts that can help us understand better the human behaviour: labelling, the backfire effect and the confirmation bias.

What is labelling?

Labelling, or categorisation, is deeply human. It derives from our survival instinct – for example, things with which it is safe/ good to interact versus things from which to keep away. It is a process of our memory that helps us retain larger amounts of information by recording it into clusters (types of food, types of animals, types of “food” that turned out to be poisonous). To quote David J. Levitin from his book, The Organised Mind: “the act of categorizing is one of cognitive economy. We treat things as being of a kind so that we don’t have to waste valuable neural processing cycles on details that are irrelevant for our purposes.”

This works on various levels for various things that surround us, and if you think about it, mostly everything can be fit into one or, in most cases, multiple categories. A lot of these categories are taught to us by others. Our parents, for example, show us so many cars in so many colours and shapes when we are young, that in time, the image of “car” takes shape and bundles together all vehicles that have four wheels, a driving wheel and are more or less “car shaped”. Same with dogs, cats and many other things, while others we create for ourselves: “these are my Monday pyjamas”, “these are my Tuesday pyjamas” etc; or this is the kind of book I like to read in the evenings, this type is for holidays, this is for commuting and so on and so forth. Therefore, labels can be objective or subjective, based on our life experience. People fall into subjective labelling, for example.

What is the confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is a somewhat unrelated, subjective concept. Our brains work hard to figure out the world surrounding us and like it when we reach a certain conclusion. Our brains usually like it less when that conclusion has to be changed because of some new piece of information that turns our worldview upside down and makes us reconsider things. And they like it even less if that conclusion is not just a cold fact that we learned, but a conviction that has guided us throughout our lives, maybe a conviction taught by our parents.

What is the conection between the backfire effect and the confirmation bias?

The challenging of our deep convictions triggers two reactions: the backfire effect and the confirmation bias.

  • The backfire effect is detailed in the You Are Not so Smart podcast (that started from the book of the same name, by David McRaney) and is illustrated very nicely in this comic here (yes, the guys from the Oatmeal; yes, those guys with Exploding Kittens; they did a very good job). On short, it means that when we are confronted with new and conflicting information compared to what we already know, our first instinct is not necessarily to embrace that new piece of information, but to reject it and strengthen our beliefs instead.
  • The confirmation bias is like a follow-up. Because we have been challenged, we search for information that supports our views and use it to disqualify any contradictions. This can be harmless, especially in ideologies (none is perfect, and debate is more than welcome), but it can affect us negatively in the case of hard facts, that do not make the subject of debate. It can also mean cherry-picking just the bits that match our opinion.

The concepts above are not bad things in themselves, but they can become harmful depending on what we do with them. The backfire effect and the confirmation bias are trigger-responses, and the important part is what we do once we identify that response: we realise we got ourselves in an uncomfortable situation, so we need to decide:

a) do we stick to what we’ve known so far OR

b) do we keep an open mind and check to see if maybe we happened to be wrong?

How can you work with labelling? How can you work with the confirmation bias?

Labelling, as mentioned above, helps us to better understand the world around us and can improve our interaction with other individuals. At the same time, it is also very important to keep an open mind and not limit our perception of an individual to first impressions or initial information.

Personality tests (not quizzes, but tests that have been researched and scientifically validated by professionals) touch on the concepts mentioned above. Of course, they are a lot more nuanced and they always need to be analysed in context. They also measure different facets of personality and view it from different angles. They might also touch on the weaknesses of an individual, not only on their strengths. And yes, they do label, but in very specific ways.

BELBIN, for example, is a behavioural test, defining clusters of behaviours and not personality traits. More about the BELBIN methodology and how it can help you understand yourself better and work more efficiently with yourself, your team or your business, in this article: https://www.edurom.ro/belbin-and-the-confirmation-bias/.


This article is written by our colleague Mădălina Ungureanu, EDUROM Consultant, lifelong learner on topics of teaching, languages, and anything HR-related. If you want to discuss more on this topic you can write to her at madalina@edurom.ro or on her LinkedIn profile.

Check here when our next Open Course is happening: https://www.edurom.ro/training-calendar/


Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels