Exercising Caution – Confirmation Biases, Cognitive Dissonance and More [Diet Context]

Exercising Caution - Confirmation Biases, Cognitive Dissonance and More [Diet Context]


I often urge people to exercise caution when making claims for such and such. We know too little about everything, yet we rush into dangerously simplifying concepts and trying to transform decent correlations into large causations. Mike Eades has a clue about this.

What’s even worse is that we have to fight our minds because once we believe something is true, we may do everything possible to hold those beliefs even in the face of shocking disapproval.

Into the Complexity…

Let me be more specific. I’m interested into optimizing my personal health condition at first, so that I can become more mentally and physically equipped to help others do the same. I may fall into the trap of my own beliefs recurrently. Take for example food.

We’re just scratching the surface of nutrigenetics, yet many of us rush into concluding that one food may be bad for him, hence it may be bad for everybody.

Classic example:

Peanuts cause allergies; tomatoes are fruits. Nobody should eat peanuts;
You cannot call yourself a true keto-warrior if you eat tomatoes.

This is absurd. Our genes’ expression differs from one individual to another. One SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) may make one more susceptible to a certain diseased condition than another.

If one can appreciate the communication between food molecules and human DNA, they will, least likely, fall into these types of biases. In the same line, many research studies may fall the tests of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias refers to tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.

Classic example:

I’m on a keto-diet and I consume 4,000 kcals daily. I eat 90% fat, consume tons of butter (plain or in my coffee). It works great for me. This is the holy ancestral diet and everybody should follow it. Whoever tries to prove me wrong is dead-wrong.

The confirmation bias often comes in the same package with cognitive dissonance, which refers to the “inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony“[5].

Classic example:

I keep sticking to this fixed macro-nutrient protocol (85% fat, 10% protein, 5% carbs) but somehow it doesn’t work for me. And oh, I so believe in this strategy that I have to keep pushing it. I will eventually come through. It has to. 

This person may have not understood the message of “one-size does not fit all“. A more healthy approach would be:

I must be doing something wrong. Let me investigate, try and adapt the strategy and see how it works.

Zooming out of the picture, an optimal condition is not only about food. And I keep talking about it and I keep feeling it is never enough.

Food is important, but it is only a small part of the big perspective. Exercise may be another one. Circadian rhythmicity may also play a role. Reducing electro-magnetic field radiation is another one. Reducing artificial light exposure may be another one. And so on, and so forth…

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blogpost on social intelligence in which I talk about the SPACE technique which is described in Karl Albrecht’s book Social Intelligence [3].

SPACE stands for situational awareness, presence, authenticity, clarity and empathy. If you can understand these concepts and apply them in your social encounters, you may likely become very popular.

From Ben’s Wisdom

Interpersonal relationships are built effective on the basis of clarity, which implies straightforward, concise, and unambiguous messages. Adding caution and reservation to the message will make it even more powerful.

To try to offer you a better perspective, I will recall Ben Franklin’s sudden change of approach to people when a friend told him that [2]:

Ben, you are impossible. Your opinions have a slap in them for everyone who differs with you. They have become so offensive that nobody cares for them. 
Your friends find they enjoy themselves better when you are not around. 
You know so much that no man can tell you anything. 
Indeed, no man is going to try, for the effort would lead only to discomfort and hard work. So you are not likely ever to know any more than you do now, which is very little.

Ben was deeply disturbed of this confession. Hence, he resolved never to try to convince anyone they may be wrong. To help his initiative, he decided to indeterminately make the following modifications in his language. In his own words [6]:

I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradictions to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbade myself the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as “certainly”, “undoubtedly”, etc. I adopted instead of them “I conceive”, “I apprehend”, or “I imagine” a thing to be so or so; or “so it appears to me at present”.

When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing him immediately some absurdity in his proposition. In answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly.”

Now, you may think: “I am no Benjamin Franklin”, but think again. We all engage in social interactions.

Recall your recent conversations with your friend, spouse, or family member. Did you try to prove a point? You most likely did. I know this because I often do it myself. And I see many around me doing the same thing.

Please don’t try and think that once you know something, you hold the ultimate truth. Please don’t try and force personal biases onto other people. Don’t try to prove people they are wrong. You’ll most likely obtain the adverse effect, as Dale Carnegie wrote almost a century ago [2]:

A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.

If you become more aware of your personal biases, here are some tools that can help you. Karl Albrecht calls them semantic malfunctions.

Semantic Malfunctions – Examples and Antidotes (adapted from Karl’s book)

Opinionitis (aggressive value judgments)

“the best diet is” => “I prefer eating…”
“you are stupid” => “I tend to disagree with you”

All-speak (all-ness language, over-generalizing)

“All diets are bad” => “Some diets may be bad”
“People are lazy” => “Some people may not like to exercise”

Or-speak (either-or language)

“Either a vegetarian or a meat eater” => “You could combine both strategies for superior results”

Should-speak (unwanted advice or directives)

“You should eat more fat, otherwise you will not maintain ketosis and you will die” => “You may reconsider your strategy, maybe you can find something that you’re not doing right.”

Dogmatism (intolerance of other views)

“If you don’t eat 1-1.5g or even 2g of protein/KG of bodyweight, you cannot gain muscle” => “You can experiment with a lower amount of protein and see how it works for you.”

Some studies have shown some correlations of protein intake and muscle buildup. But somehow we tend to forget that there are dozens of variables to control for, many more than the researchers try to encompass. On top of that, add the different genetic fingerprint of people and you may be more careful in making reckless conclusions.

And it takes only 1 exception of the rule (hypothesis) to disprove it.

Read about the two additional approaches (labeling and sarcasm) in Karl’s book [3].

Hopefully you get the idea so far. I am implying an exercise of caution. Do not get me wrong, I do not imply moderation. I think that moderation in “you name it” leads to mediocrity. I will elaborate on this concept in a future blogpost.


Moving away from food: I believe that the complexity of the nature of things begs extensive observation, a multi-perspective approach, as well as clear, unbiased (as much as possible) and straight-forward message. This concept applies to many topics and areas of life.

Getting back to food: we know little about it; so we may try focusing more time on investigating and less time on building our own confirmation biases. Moreover, food is only a small (but important) part of the approach to optimal human condition.

I’d like to suggest you some further readings on the topic.


1. Michael Gazzaniga – Who’s in Charge? Free will and the Science of the Brain

2. Dale Carnegie – How to Win Friends and Influence People

3. Karl Albrecht – Social Intelligence – The New Science of Success

4. Mike Eades – Beware of the confirmation bias

5. Saul McLeod – Cognitive Dissonance

6. Benjamin Franklin – The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

7. Jerry Kang – Immaculate Perception. TEDx San Diego 2013

Photo: Sean Dreilinger

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