All Ears or Deaf Ears: Confirmation Bias in Birth Stories

by Nicole Tricarico, Birth Story Medicine Facilitator

When we become pregnant, it seems everyone wants to tell birth stories. Many birth stories tend to be intense, scary, and describe an undeniably negative experience. Growing apprehension may be stronger when disturbing stories come from those closest to us. People who don’t accept that giving birth needs to be awful might go on a mission to find positive birth stories to reinforce their belief.

Confirmation Bias: Hearing what we want to hear

Often, when we get an idea about birth (or anything) and believe it to be true, we seek information that confirms our point of view and filter out or discount information that does not. This is known as confirmation bias, and it is something we all do.

The more emotional we feel about something, the more single-minded we can become in our confirmation bias. This is made evident in how we tune into birth stories that support or prove what we believe (and desire). If someone believes birth is meant to be a positive and beautiful experience, they might not consider learning from negative stories. If someone believes giving birth will be a negative experience, they may try to ignore or write off the positive stories as exceptions.

Only listening to certain kinds of stories narrows your viewpoint and limits a holistic approach to preparation. If you avoid exploring things that can happen in birth, should that unwanted something happen, you could feel unprepared and blindsided. Being aware of your bias is a start in preparing for your birth journey. Taking a more objective and open-minded approach can protect you from being overly confident, as well as excessively fearful or negative. From a more balanced place, you may be able to make better choices and be more realistic in your expectations.

The experience of giving birth is complex and deeply personal; it’s almost impossible to fully articulate. Placing more value on a certain kind of birth story, or discounting a story because it isn’t what you want to hear, might result in missing the learning inherent in every birth experience.

How to Hear the Hidden Gems in Every Story

Notice which stories you want to listen to and which stories you want to ignore or not believe. When you hear a story that sounds scary or is something you’re hoping won’t happen for you, instead of tuning out, ask yourself what is it that you need to know about this situation or what you would do to cope if a situation like this did arise’?

In seeking to learn from the experience of others, ask the kind of questions that allow the person to share their unique experience with you. Often when someone has had a difficult experience, they get into a pattern of only sharing what didn’t work or the painful aspects of it. Engage in a dialogue that highlights their learnings and wisdom by asking about a moment when they did cope, or something they did that did work, and what they learned about themselves through the process.  

Examples of helpful questions include:

· How did you get through labour, how did you cope?

· Did you use pain relief? If so, how did you know when to ask for it?  

· What’s one thing that you wished you knew before giving birth?

· What helped you most during labour?

· How did you prepare for giving birth?

· What was one thing you did in which you surprised yourself?

· What was one moment of connection or support that you really treasure?

· When was the first moment you felt like a mother/father?

Guiding the story sharing in this way may allow the storyteller to appreciate their experience from a new perspective while sharing information that supports you on your journey – a truly beautiful gift that can be beneficial for both the storyteller and the listener. 

(Nicole’s original article under the title “When a Positive Birth Story is a Problem” appeared in Elephant Journal on June 5, 2017: )

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