WPP #5: Confirmation Bias
Photo courtesy of Chess.com.

WPP #5: Confirmation Bias


    To be terribly honest, I can hardly write right now. I just don't know how to pin confirmation bias down. Even "Inconsistent Thought Process" was easier - just look back at your thoughts during a game and figure out how they were messed up.

    But confirmation bias is incredibly hard to write about, simply because it's an abstract concept. And who knows? Maybe I'm getting confirmation bias just by typing that sentence. grin.png


    In any event, it's not just confirmation bias. The whole psychological side of chess is scarcely covered in any type of chess literature, and a chess book that at its core aims to help a player think better is an incredible rarity. As much as I've only been playing for two and a half years, I have never seen a real definition of confirmation bias as it pertains to chess.

    Part of that is that confirmation bias has always been more about the internet and the media, you know, echo chambers and the like. But confirmation bias in chess is much, much different.

    I now refer you to a quote from GM Jonathan Rowson's excellent book Chess for Zebras: "... stronger players tend to seek to falsify their hypotheses; e.g... ('I think if I play 10. a4 the position is OK for White but it might be too slow given that White is underdeveloped; it depends if Black can open the position quickly...') while weaker players try to verify their hypotheses (e.g. I need to stop Black playing ... e5, 10. Bb5 seems to stop it, and even if Black plays ... c6 it is not good for Black to follow up with ... e5 so 10. Bb5 looks good...)"

   Indeed, this hits it right on the nose. Generally, the lower your rating, the less likely you are to look for a better move when you find one that looks good, or even one that is good. A sizable amount of the time, you can find yourself playing that first move knowing that it is bad. That brings us to our first "confirmation bias" moment:

Confirmation Bias - Type 1: Playing a move you know is bad

    However, this is far from the only type of chess confirmation bias, though. In fact, this type is probably the least harmful as it goes away almost completely once most players reach a certain strength. Allow me to introduce you to the second, far more insidious type of confirmation bias, one that ensnares players of all levels. This second type of confirmation bias works its magic in positions where either player has to solve a concrete problem. In such positions, I've often found myself finding several bad moves before I can find a single good one, often taking downright wasteful amounts of time double-checking and triple-checking as many as three different candidate moves.

    In such situations, I almost always end up playing the first good move I see, but the overwhelming majority of the time, that move is a serious mistake.

    This game, which you've all seen before on my blog and will doubtless see again in the future, is one I have used before.

    But can I really help it? My blunder on move 16 is such an instructive gem.

Confirmation Bias - Type 2: Playing the first "good" move you see

    The last type of confirmation bias I'm discussing here is far more well-known to most chess players, and that's a large part of why I'm including it: to bridge the gap between the relatively unexplored notion of confirmation bias in chess to something we all know about and have experienced. The third and final type of confirmation bias I'll be exploring in this article is Silman's "I can't".

    "I can't" is everywhere in amateur chess, and it shows in my games. It's even in the rather tired example I used for the second type of confirmation bias, where sprinkled in with the muddled thought process and stress was a healthy dose of "I can't let the Knight into f4" and "I can't play 16. Qc2 because of 16... Nb4". Here's just a few more from my games.

     So, what's the point, given that I already know what my problem is? Well, at this point, the series isn't really about me anymore. It's all about helping you to improve through a critical look at the problems I face in my own games.

Thanks for stopping in and be sure to catch the Blunders post next week. Bye for now!