Continuing with the theme of confirmation bias, an organization’s leaders can play an important role in discouraging, or at least managing the risk, of confirmation bias within their businesses.
Here are three things leaders can do to protect decision making processes from distortion by this pervasive human bias:
- Recognize the bias and remind yourself and others to look for it when making decisions or conducting analyses. Remind yourself that the authors of everything you read (including this article) are making a point that is supported by the data they present, but is not necessarily by data they do not present — and in fact may not even have seen if they did not look hard enough for contrary data. (Since this article is on confirmation bias, we felt compelled to do a short search for evidence refuting the idea that people tend to suffer from this bias, but found very little. There appears to be consensus about confirmation bias.) Remind yourself that the talented and well-intentioned people providing you with analysis and recommendations are also subject to confirmation bias.
- Ask “what else could it be?” Think creatively about alternative explanations and alternative solutions. Explore the whole feasible set, if possible.
- Encourage the expression of contrary views and ideas… ask for them! Aggressively seek out and try to understand contrarian views. For many us, the first impulse is to refute contrarian views and argue our own. But the best decisions are likely to be made by those who “seek first to understand rather than be understood.”
A recent post shared insights into the pitfall of confirmation bias, which is the tendency to pursue and embrace information that matches our existing beliefs.
Here are four questions that might help you surface biases or preconceptions that could impact the quality of the thinking processes that convert the information you have gathered into a lasting breakthrough solution:
- Did you have this idea as you began your analysis of the current situation? If so, maybe your thinking process was affected by theory-blindness, which is similar to confirmation bias. Theory-blindness is the tendency we all have to give disproportionate weight to evidence and testimony supporting our preconception and an unconscious inclination to discount or miss entirely evidence that refutes the theory.
- Are you under the influence of the experience trap? This occurs when we think, “I’ve seen this before and here’s the solution that worked before, so that’s what we should do now.” Often a solution that succeeded in one place at one time produces very different results when the circumstances have changed. We can work to overcome this bias to arrive at an even better solution by noticing this is at the heart of our thinking process.
- Could our judgment be influenced by the availability bias? The term describes a tendency to base judgments on how quickly and easily something comes to mind. If an event happened recently, or if we were personally affected by a type of event, we are likely to over-estimate its frequency or importance. If we have never experienced a type of event, our bias is to underestimate its occurrence. If we are aware of this bias, and are careful to compensate for it with data, we improve our thinking process and the likelihood of arriving at a good outcome.
- Have we fallen in love with our first idea? We tend to have a powerful urge to stick with the first idea that comes to us, focusing on what’s right about it rather than its flaws. Our attachment to our first idea can keep us from surfacing better alternatives. Or, as French philosopher Émile Chartier (Alain) said, “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it’s the only one we have!”
As we work through the improvement process, we will be most successful if we carefully and objectively evaluate and continually improve the thinking processes we use to convert the facts and data into the best solution.
As the saying goes, “With experience comes wisdom, but also confirmation bias!”
As you are likely aware, confirmation bias is the tendency to pursue and embrace information that matches our existing beliefs. Human nature is part of the problem as the information (facts?) we uncover that align with what we already thought to be true “feel” right.
But this inclination to look for supportive data can easily lead us to serious mistakes and poor decisions.
Consider that if we become more likely to look for evidence that the idea we favor is correct rather than look for ways it may be wrong, we’re really not making a “data-driven decision” because we’re actually collecting “decision-driven data.”
Here are three ways in which we can protect our decision-making from the related distortion:
- Recognize the bias and remind ourselves to look for it in our decisions and analyses. Remember that the authors of everything we read are making a point that is supported by the data they present, but is not necessarily by data they do not present.
- Make a habit of asking ourselves, “What else could it be?” We must think creatively about alternative explanations and alternative solutions, and do our best to explore them.
- Encourage the expression of contrary views and ideas.