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Cognitive Distortion - Confirmation Bias

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

I am back on track, after a short reprieve, and ready to discuss the cognitive distortions I have enacted in my life throughout my addiction. In my first cognitive distortion blog, I wrote about filtering. Filtering is when we tend to focus on only the negative aspects of our lives, even when there are positive aspects occurring. I used filtering almost exclusively before giving up my addictions. Today, I am going to discuss the idea of confirmation bias and how it applies to addiction. To be clear, confirmation bias is not generally categorized as a cognitive distortion, but I cannot help but see it as one based on the definition of cognitive distortions. I feel compelled to include it because it was something I did on a regular basis. It is also directly related to something else I talk a lot about, core beliefs. With this in mind, I will talk about how I have used confirmation bias to not only support my drinking habits but also to reaffirm my already present negative core beliefs.

Let's start by defining the idea of confirmation bias. The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories ( On some level, I think confirmation bias is natural. We want to believe the things we believe are true. Who doesn't? The problem occurs when we want our beliefs to be true to such a degree we ignore information contrary to our existing beliefs. At this point, we are not affording ourselves any opportunity to learn or grow. We are simply forcing ourselves to remain in a perpetual state of stagnation. In order to move forward and grow, we have to allow ourselves to see opposing sides, viewpoints, and beliefs. Otherwise, we might as well live our lives out in a cave, isolated from change.

I could stop drinking whenever I wanted; I just did not want to

Where this plays a particularly troubling role is when we use confirmation bias to support negative core beliefs we have developed over time. Once we hold a negative core belief such as, I am unworthy, then we will go out of our way to find evidence to support our existing belief. Even though conflicting evidence is available to us, we will disregard it, much like filtering, and only focus on the information supporting our core belief. Confirmation bias and core beliefs are two different ideas but they are very similar too. As long as we are only seeking information on one side of a belief, we are using confirmation bias.

When I was actively drinking, I truly believed I did not have a problem with alcohol. My family's history, on the other hand, suggested I held a strong proclivity for alcoholism. Nevertheless, nobody could have ever told me I too may be an alcoholic. For years, my go-to belief was I could stop drinking whenever I wanted; I just did not want to. I believed this in my deepest core. There was nothing in my thought processes or beliefs suggesting I had even a slight problem with alcohol. I knew it like I knew I could run a mile at any given time. Even if I was out of shape, I could still get it done. Same with drinking. Even if I didn't like it, I could quit drinking any time I wanted. I am fairly certain many of you reading this know exactly what I am talking about.

There was no way alcohol was involved, so it had to be depression

When we hold strong internal beliefs, whether or not they are accurate, we seek out information to support them. It doesn't matter if it is political, religious, economic, or even academic, we want to be right in our beliefs. My belief regarding my ability to stop drinking was the epitome of this cognitive distortion. Even though I craved alcohol, even though I chose it over friends and family at times, even though I woke up hungover and still wanting to drink, even though I became grouchy when I could not drink, even though I showed every possible tendency toward alcoholism, I never focused on that information. No, I focused on any sliver of evidence to support my belief I could quit drinking at any given time. For example, I wrote about my moderation techniques last week. Anytime I quit drinking for a period of time to prove to myself I could do it, I used that information to support my belief I did not have a problem. I also focused on information like my never losing a job, getting a DUI, going to jail, losing my home, etc... to support my belief I was not an alcoholic. Even though there is plenty of evidence out there to support functional alcoholism as a viable condition, I didn't focus on that information either.

I was very good at manipulating my own beliefs and feelings to support my continued drinking. I still felt deep down there was a problem. When I say deep down, I mean so deep I was barely aware of it. When I watched movies or read books about a character with alcoholism, it resonated. I connected to their loneliness, struggle, and depression. I could feel it in my heart, but I could never allow myself to consciously admit it. At one point in my active addiction, I made a clear correlation between all my problems and depression. There was no way alcohol was involved, so it had to be depression. I looked up depression and found every possible symptom relating to the problems I was experiencing and bam; I concluded I had depression. This is obviously quite ironic since alcohol is a depressant and clearly the reason I was feeling most of the feelings I associated with depression. Nevertheless, I found information and evidence to support the belief I did not have a problem with alcohol. I was simply depressed. This is confirmation bias at its best or worst depending on how you look at it.

Alcohol kept any hope I had of living well and with positivity squelched

I can emphatically say the moment I quit drinking and nicotine, my depression disappeared. I am not going to say I don't have down days and feel low at times, but I am in no way depressed in the way I thought I was in active addiction. When my "depression" disappeared so too did many other beliefs I held regarding things like my self-worth, ability to succeed, my deserving of love, friendship, and happiness; and even my beliefs about the world in general. All of those negative core beliefs I had developed over the years began to fade away. I began to believe I was worthy, deserving, and capable of succeeding in anything I wanted to do. I began to look at people and events in the world differently. I found myself feeling more positive and seeking out positivity around me. All of this occurred because I removed one thing from my life. How can one change make such a dramatic difference in my life? Well, it was the one thing preventing me from not only recognizing but feeling my truest feelings. Alcohol kept any hope I had of living well and with positivity squelched. It did not allow me to see there were other options. To make matters worse, because of my fear of letting go of alcohol, I used confirmation bias to try and prove to myself and the world I did not have a problem with alcohol, therefore, prolonging the problem.

While it is easy for me to talk about it now in hindsight, I have to admit for those of you still in active addiction, this may not sound as obvious. You may still be trying to confirm your ability to quit drinking whenever you want or to moderate. You may be saying to yourself, yeah, this isn't me. I am positive, productive, happy, and in control of my life. The only other thing I can offer to those of you still feeling this way is this; can you imagine if it were possible to be even more productive, positive, happy, and in control of your life? What would your life look like then? How much more might you accomplish? How much stronger might your relationships be? How much more money might you make? How much happier might you feel? What if it is possible to increase the likelihood of all of these things? Would you give it a shot? Would you take the chance? Would you be able to see the evidence supporting the possibility of you becoming the best possible version of yourself?

Well, what happens if our existing belief is sobriety is easy?

Guess what? Confirmation bias can work in a positive way for us too. Seek out and find the evidence to support just how badass of a person you are. The evidence is out there if you are willing to open your mind to the possibility there are two sides to every belief. Start seeing and believing the side that helps you succeed, not the side that keeps you held down. Focus on all the positives in your life and disregard the negatives. Use your bias instead to support your sobriety, growth, and better life.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our existing beliefs. Well, what happens if our existing belief is sobriety is easy?

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