Your brain wants you to think you’re right—even if you’re not.

x-ray brain

If you’ve ever been on a first date… or if you’ve ever interviewed someone who wanted to work for you… or if you’ve ever taken a new car for a test drive, you’ve probably experienced a pesky cognitive situation known as: “confirmation bias.”

What is confirmation bias?

It’s when you “want” something to be good, true, accurate, or right for you, so your brain begins to search for information to support what you want to believe (“This car smells great! And it’s blue, my favorite color!”) while rapidly filtering out any information that contradicts your desired belief (“I’m sure I can get used to this funky steering wheel, no big deal.”)


Your brain wants you to think you’re right, even if you’re not.

Unfortunately, physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers struggle with confirmation bias, too, just like anybody else.

One study, which is described in the book Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath, a book about how human beings make decisions and how we can learn to make better ones, states that doctors who feel “100% confident” about a diagnosis are actually wrong a surprising amount of the time.

Another study found that fatal diagnostic errors in intensive care units lead to about 40,000 deaths every year. To put that in context, that’s the same amount of people that die from breast cancer every year. Yikes.

It’s easy to place all the blame on doctor’s shoulders (“Doctors make too many mistakes!”) but that’s not a particularly fair or productive attitude.

After all, doctors are responding to the information that you, the patient, bring into their office. Maybe there’s a gap in the information that you provided. If you forget to mention something, if you don’t know about a particular aspect of your family or medical history, if you leave something out because you’re embarrassed, or if you’re already feeling “totally certain” about what’s going on because you did some Googling earlier today—all of those things can impact your doctor’s ability to help you get an accurate diagnosis.

You are smart. Your doctor is smart too. You are flawed and human. Your doctor is too.

That’s why it’s up to both of you to work together as a team to avoid jumping to conclusions too quickly, to avoid slipping into a biased way of thinking, and to explore every possibility before coming to a firm conclusion about what’s up with your body and what you ought to do next.

At your next doctor’s visit, my recommendation is to ask lots of questions.

You don’t have to be rude, obviously, but you can carry the conversation and be extra-inquisitive.

You can ask questions like:

~You believe that I’m dealing with [name of illness or issue]. What other possibilities could there be for this?

~What additional testing or screening would you recommend to help us rule out (or confirm) those other possibilities?

~What’s our timeline for exploring other possibilities?

~Can you refer me to another specialist for a second opinion?

~Could we get group-input from a few of your colleagues?

~Do you have any more questions for me?

~If you were in my position, what are some additional questions you’d want to ask your doctor?

Explain to your doctor that you value his/her opinions, but you’re also aware that misdiagnosis can happen, and you want to take every possible step to make sure you’re both arriving at the right conclusion.

To be honest, I might not have an answer to every question, but it would get me thinking.

By reminding yourself that confirmation bias happens to everyone, even doctors, and by posing lots of questions to fight back against that kind of bias, you’ll have a better chance at finding the right solution, not just the solution that you (or your doctor) “wants” to be right.

~ Dr. Sue

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