Thoughts, Selective Attention and Confirmation Bias

Lately, in session, I’ve been talking with numerous clients about whether or not thoughts define us, as well as various biases humans are susceptible to that often keep us stuck cognitively. I thought it could be useful to address them both today. 

Do our thoughts define us? 

I’ve been quite open about the fact I have obsessive compulsive disorder. Simply put, one experiences obsessions (intrusive thoughts) and compulsions (behaviours to manage the obsessions). Thoughts of killing my family would flood my mind. At the time, I had no idea what was happening, or that it was a mental illness. I thought because I was experiencing these thoughts, they must say something about who I am. I thought I was a horrible human being, a daughter who should never be trusted, evil, and so on. 

It took a long time in therapy, to get to the realization that my thoughts didn’t have to define me. That thoughts could just be thoughts. That I didn’t have to put a “value” on them as either good or bad. My being didn’t have to be in question just because something popped into my mind. Every thought did not need to be an internalization of who I was or am. 

Capability also doesn’t define one’s worth or value. I wanted to believe that I could never be capable of hurting/killing the one’s I love (or other humans around me). I used to think that because I “thought” it, this somehow made me more capable. The truth is, we all have the ability to cause harm. Capability, just like thoughts, however does not automatically mean one will do it or that they want to do it. 

Now, let’s just say, I have thoughts about myself that I don’t like. Perhaps, it’s a worldview or core belief. It is possible to change the way one thinks. Neuroplasticity is real! It’s helpful to take stalk of what drives our behaviour as well as how we think/feel about ourselves and others. With practice, we can go from changing negative self-worth into positive self-worth. From not believing recovery is possible, to having hope that it is and so on. 

Okay, so, let’s agree that thoughts don’t have to define us. That one can let them come and go (I know this is easy to say. Practice is needed.) without having a value attached to them. The next part of this blog will explore are ability to take information in and the biases that shape our perceptions.

There are many different biases and cognitive theories that shape how we take in informaiton. I’m going to focus on two: selective attention and confirmation bias. 

Selective attention occurs all the time. There’s a lot of information/stimuli out there, that we can’t take it all in at once. So, we have to filter the information, and usually, it’s the most relevant information. 

Try this exercise.

The potential problem with selective attention is that we might miss some really important information (or gorillas!) that may be beneficial in moving us forward in recovery.

Confirmation bias results when we only pay attention to information/stimuli that confirms what you already think. An example would be if you have an eating disorder, and don’t think you’re sick. You might only pay attention to, and take in, the information that confirms or is consistent with this belief. It does not mean that there is not information out there that challenges this belief (ie: medical complications, social limitation, anxieties around food/weight/body image, ED behaviours, etc), but you aren’t giving it much thought/weight as it challenges your belief. 

How does talking about bias and selective attention relate to the piece about thoughts defining who we are? If we don’t think highly of ourselves, we will continue to selectively pay attention to information and stimulus that confirms this belief, despite there being a plethora of information to the contrary. If we don’t think we can recovery, we will constantly take in information that keeps us stuck. If you think no one loves you, you might look past the positive relationships in your life.

So, what to do? As always, I’d encourage you do connect with a therapist in trying to figure some of this out. Experiment with being mindful of what goes on in your day, as well as your thoughts and reactions. Take stalk of what people are saying and how many people are saying it. Do you react more to one piece of information than another? When someone gives you a compliment, instead of brushing it off, take a second to hear it and recognize that your need to discount it might be you falling into confirmation bias. In some ways, this is what CBT thought records, or DBT’s Wise Mind, is trying to get you to do. To see another perspective. Experiment with opening the door a little. There just might be another angle to see.