How to Battle Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is always at work inside our brains. Why? Because it’s human nature to seek out facts, statistics and opinions that we think prove our existing beliefs — even if those beliefs are incorrect! 

In other words, we see things not always as they actually are, but as we want to see them.

Here are three examples that convey the aggressive power of confirmation bias in our professional lives: 

  • Your boss thinks his latest idea will give your company a competitive edge, so you and your team automatically skew market research and competitive analyses from the biased perspective of wanting to please your boss. 
  • During a series of interviews for a new sales manager, you become fixated on one or two factors (Big Ten university programs produce the best candidates, for example, or the chosen applicant must have previously overseen a million-dollar account) — leading you to potentially overlook other, better-qualified candidates. 
  • Initial sales of a recently launched product surpass expectations, prompting you to increase production without considering that customer interest might quickly diminish after the excitement of something new wears off — potentially leaving you with excess inventory. 

Confirmation bias works actively in our personal lives, too. Consider these two examples:

  • You’re thinking about purchasing a Tesla and now notice more Teslas sharing the road with you, which reinforces your belief that a Tesla is better than — and will make you happier than — a Lexus or a BMW.  
  • You’re worried your son might be experimenting with opioids but before you can have a conversation with him about it, you find a wad of cash in his jacket pocket and conclude that it’s drug money. 

In short, confirmation bias can dramatically — and often falsely — influence everything from how you manage your department to how you interact with family members. And in every case, it removes the element of objectivity from the equation. 

Research Proves Confirmation Bias Runs Rampant

But don’t just take my word for it. A study published in the September 2018 issue of Current Biology suggests that confirmation bias applies not only to abstract or high-level thinking but also to low-level decision-making.

How low? Consider this: A team of researchers from Germany and Israel asked study participants to watch white dots on a computer screen and determine whether they were moving in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Next, participants observed a second set of animated dots and were asked to determine the direction in which those dots were moving. 

Now, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds, considering the dots in question were surrounded by other randomly moving dots. But still…

Researchers found the participants who indicated the first batch of dots moved in a clockwise direction did the same with the second batch — even if the dots were moving counter-clockwise! — and vice versa. 

“This is kind of scary,” Jaime de la Rocha, a neuroscientist at the Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute in Spain (who wasn’t involved in the study), told “When people are evaluating evidence, they are using a filter created by previous decisions.”

Scary, indeed. 

Sometimes, falling prey to confirmation bias won’t make much difference in the final outcome, such as determining the direction in which animated dots are moving on a screen. But in other cases — making decisions about an important business deal, launching a new program or hiring for a critical position — confirmation bias can lead to debilitating results.

Why? Because it provides people with all the reasons they deem necessary to support their own claims and aims, with nothing to refute.

So how do you overcome confirmation bias? In persuasion situations in which you are attempting to ethically win the heart and mind of someone else, make time for due diligence. Look at all relevant data sets to make sure that what you’re proposing is the right thing to do. Also consider seeking input from people who hold opposing viewpoints — or who at least aren’t as close to a specific project or circumstance as you. 

Once you’re convinced that your actions will be best for you, for others and for the specific situation at hand, acknowledge any confirmation bias that might be in play, and then don’t hesitate to go against the grain. 

After all, you want to get to “yes” the right way — and for all the right reasons.

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

For the Win (Mark’s Persuasion Priority Action Plan: The Conclusion)

We’re now ready for the final step in my seven-step persuasion priority action plan. I wrote about the previous six steps here and here.

At this point, you have thoroughly evaluated your risk and reward, as well as determined whether you’d like to move forward with you persuasion priority. Remember, your persuasion priority is this: Who is the one person you want to say yes to what?

You’ve also articulated your request, and identified not only your self-interest but the enlightened self-interest of others.

 You’ve crafted your case, crunched the numbers, created compelling language, crafted superb stories, and anticipated resistance and your response to that resistance.

You’ve identified key players in your request, considered their personalities and preferences, and mapped your persuasion terrain.

Now, you’re ready to launch a plan that will take you to your objective. At a high level, your action plan may look like this:

  1. Meet with financial analyst to see if numbers make sense. 
  2. Engage your target on the topic; ask for input.
  3. Brainstorm options with him and others. 
  4. Run the numbers and various scenarios. 
  5. Form and frame options to get result.
  6. Acknowledge potential challenges and ask for your target’s opinion.
  7. Formalize the decision and create perpetual yes.  

Create as many action steps as necessary, but don’t make things overly complicated. You probably don’t need 27 action steps, but two might be too few. You can then adjust accordingly as your persuasion campaign develops. 

You my consider giving the what, when, why and how approach a shot — just to ensure you think through your action steps accordingly. 

Your Course of Action

What: Approach financial analyst Corey Williamson and ask for ROI estimate input.

When: COB next Friday.

Why: We have a great relationship, so he’ll be honest with me when evaluating pros and cons. Presenting a solid financial case will show I’m serious. Plus, if this idea won’t provide great ROI for the company, I shouldn’t move forward. 

How: I know Corey is at his best in the morning. He’s also a text message guy who hates surprises and loves details. I’ll send a text, set up a morning meeting and bring him all the details for his perusal. 

Try scripting out your first five action steps in this format and see what develops. 

Can’t I Just Pitch It?

When I present the art of persuasion this manner, some people ask me, “Do I really need to do all this? Can’t I just go in pitch it?”

 Sure, you can. It all depends on how big your “ask” is and how important the result is to you and your organization. You certainly wouldn’t unleash this sort of horsepower when trying to persuade someone to go to a seafood restaurant for lunch. But if you’re vying for that coveted assignment, looking to add significant numbers to your staff or pitching your board of directors on a new strategic initiative, you better bring it.

The rule of thumb is that planning pays off in a 5:1 ratio: Every hour you spend planning pays off by saving you roughly five hours of misdirected effort.

What are you willing to do to hear yes?

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

A Blueprint for ‘Yes’ (Mark’s Persuasion Priority Action Plan: Part 2)

In order to succeed in your persuasion efforts, you need a persuasion priority action plan. The one I like to use involves seven steps, and I covered three of them in a previous post.

Here they are:

Step 1: Clearly state who is the one person you want to do what.

Step 2: Determine why this is important for you, your target and your organization.

Step 3: Build your quantitative and qualitative case

Step 4: Plan your language (adjectives, metaphors, examples, stories and humor).

Step 5: Assess your primary target and other key influencers. 

Step 6: Map the persuasion territory.

Step 7: Create your step-by-step actions: When do you do what with whom, and why? 

In this post, I will cover the next three steps, saving the final one for next time.

Plan your language (adjectives, metaphors, examples, stories and humor).

What savvy phrases can you use to describe your request or facets of your request?

• A compelling argument

• A sensitive situation

• A crucial decision

Questions work, too.

• Do we want to surrender to the competition?

Similarly, what figures of speech (metaphor, simile, analogy) can you create to describe your request or subsequent risks or rewards?

• “This guy is the Payton Manning of sales directors.”

• “That part of the country is a marketing black hole.”

• “The likelihood of the board approving that approach is less than that of Kim Kardashian wearing a turtleneck tomorrow.” 

Using storytelling best practices, what brief and relatable story you can develop to justify your request, address potential challenges or describe imminent rewards. Be sure to have a point, include a captivating open, establish a plot, insert an unexpected element and conclude with a learning point. 

Anticipate resistance and objection. How will you respond when someone says, “It costs too much”? Or, “We don’t need it”? Or “Now is not the right time”?

Step 5: Assess your primary target and other key players. 

You certainly don’t need to list every person who might be involved in your request, but it’s critical to include your primary target and key players. Write down their names and titles, your impression of their personalities, and your perception of their preferences for communication and information.   

For example:

• Steve Miller, VP Field Operations; expressive; text messages; just the facts 

• Jerry Matherstone, General Counsel, reserved; face-to-face; all the details

Using a table like the one below can help you sort through these details.

Jerry MatherstoneGeneral CounselReserved; little sense of humor Face to face (no email) Wants all the details
Steve MillerVP Field OperationsExpressive; likes to joke Text messagesJust the facts

Step 6: Map the persuasion territory.

If your persuasion priority involves more than a few people, represents significant dollars and is likely to take some time, you should map the persuasion territory. Here’s what I mean: When strategizing your persuasion approach answer the following five questions:

  1. Who are the key players?
  2. On a scale of -10 to 10 (10 being highest), what is each player’s influence in the organization?
  3. On a scale of -10 to 10  (10 being completely in support of your idea), to what extent is each player applying that influence? 
  4. How easily do you think each person might change his or her position (low, medium, high)?
  5. What significant relationships exist among key players?

Again, use a table like the one below to help you sort through the responses to these questions:

NameOrg. InfluenceFor or AgainstChangeableRelationships
Jerry Matherstone+8+7Medium+ Steve Miller
Steve Miller+5
-4High– Sally Mack

Use this information to map your persuasion territory.

Next time, I’ll focus on the final step of my persuasion priority action plan.

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

Are You Ready for Action? (Mark’s Persuasion Priority Action Plan: Part 1)

I write lot about persuasion; you know that already. So over the next few posts, I am going to share my seven-step persuasion priority action plan:

Step 1: Clearly state who is the one person you want to do what.

Step 2: Determine why this is important for you, your target and your organization.

Step 3: Build your quantitative and qualitative case

Step 4: Plan your language (adjectives, metaphors, examples, stories and humor).

Step5: Assess your primary target and other key influencers. 

Step 6: Map the persuasion territory.

Step 7: Create your step-by-step actions: When do you do what with whom, and why? 

Here we go:

Step 1: Clearly state who is the one person you want to do what?

Keep in mind the four persuasion priority criteria (meaningful, significant, realistic and others oriented), and be specific. 

Don’t say: “I want my senior vice president to add some people to my staff sometime.” 

Say this: “I would like my senior vice president to approve five key new hires for my department by the start of next quarter.” 

Who do you want to do what?

Step 2: Why is this important to you, your target and your organization? 

Strive to identify at least three reasons for each (you, your target and your organization).

These can include financial gain, skills acquired, networks built, market share increased, reputation improved and others.

Step 3: Build your quantitative and qualitative case. 


What might be the return on investment (expressed in dollars or a ratio)?

If we’re talking about a larger and longer term project, what might be the net present value and internal rate of return?

What other benefits of achieving this priority can be readily quantified?          


Will your initiative result in sustained high morale, and how might you know?

Will the initiative lead to more effective teamwork? What might be the evidence?

What other qualitative reasons and subsequent evidence can you add?

Next time I’ll focus on more steps in creating your persuasion priority action plan.

(Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash)

Being Funny Can Make You More Persuasive

Research conducted over the past 40 years suggests that watching comedians or other funny bits improves people’s capacity to solve problems.

Here’s proof:

• Alice M. Isen, a psychologist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore in the late 1980s, found that people who watched a short series of television ”bloopers” were better able to problem-solve than those who watched a film about math or physically exercised prior to being presented with a problem. 

• The cognitive neuroscientist Mark Beeman found that showing test subjects stand-up routine clips from the late comedian Robin Williams increased the success rate of solving insight problems by 20 percent.

• The journal Neuropsychologia published a study in 2013 by Stanford researchers that linked humor to higher IQ scores.

What does all this mean for your persuasion efforts? Humor helps people make smarter decisions. Being funny (in the right ways) can propel your persuasion attempts as effectively as one of the Roadrunner’s rocket sleds powered by the Acme Corporation.

Give it a try.

Try a New Way to Think About Thinking

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist and author Daniel Kahneman, we possess two “systems” for thinking: one that processes information very quickly, and one that does so more slowly and requires significantly more effort.

Here’s the thing: Most of us don’t really like to think all that hard. As humans, we rely on what comes to mind with the least amount of cognitive strain. We also don’t always act rationally — rarely going to the trouble of, say, doing the math or weighing the pros and cons of a decision.

But don’t be too hard on yourself: We act that way to survive in a post-modern world where the amount of information we are exposed to has grown exponentially, but the basic architecture of our brains hasn’t changed since the likes of Australopithecus africanus roamed the earth. We employ mental shortcuts to survive. Sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t.

Discovering Heuristics and Biases

Heuristics are supportive cognitive shortcuts that help us make good decisions in times of complexity. Biases, on the other hand, impede decision making. Sometimes, biases also are referred to as cognitive illusions, because much like an optical illusion, they twist our thinking about reality.

So how do we distinguish between the two? It’s often difficult to parse heuristics and biases, because the same factors that impact our thinking also impact our thinking about our thinking. For example, sometimes we fall prey to something called base-rate neglect. This is when we ignore statistics in favor of anecdotal incidents.

Heuristics and biases are built into our psychological makeup and are so pervasive that we rarely even notice them working inside our heads. Plus, they feel so natural, so how could they be wrong? If you make what turns out to be a good decision, you’ve just used a heuristic. If the decision results in a negative outcome, you’ve succumbed to mental bias. As one psychology student so aptly put it: “Heuristics are helpful biases. Biases are hurtful heuristics.”

Regardless of how you might categorize these mental patterns, understanding and labeling them will help you consider these cognitive processes more easily and create strategic persuasion campaigns based on them. They also will help your targets make better decisions.

Don’t worry about getting too hung up on trying to determine whether something is a heuristic or a bias. Simply concentrate on what these mental tendencies mean to you in terms of your persuasion efforts.

It’s OK To Say ‘No’ To Your Persuasion Priority

What if, after careful evaluation, you determine that your persuasion priority is not worth the effort?

Maybe it’s not financially feasible. Or it won’t necessarily enhance your professional skills or expand your networks. Perhaps it will stress you out or overwork you.

Regardless of the reason, don’t be too disappointed. You’ve just saved yourself precious time, energy and effort — and perhaps minimized any potentially career-damaging risks. Contrary to Robert Plant’s timeless lyric in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” all that glitters certainly isn’t gold.

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and set another priority. 

This is why analysis is so important when it comes to engaging in persuasion. It allows us to see things in black and white, forcing us to think clearly and make the tough decisions.

If, on the other hand, you’ve carefully considered your persuasion priority and are convinced you’re headed in the right direction, you will now have the energy and proper mental mindset to help you succeed.

The Difference Between Happiness and Satisfaction

How will the pursuit of your persuasion priority impact your happiness and satisfaction?

First, it’s important to realize that happiness and satisfaction are two separate and distinct notions. In short, happiness is based on conditions; satisfaction is based on reflection. 

Happiness is the short-term elevation of mood, typically influenced by conditions. Is what you’re doing at the moment fun, are the people you’re interacting with enjoyable to be around and is the work environment convivial? Or do time pressures exist with micro-managing bosses nagging you in a work environment that feels awkward or even toxic? 

Satisfaction is the longer-term, overall feeling of contentedness. Have you achieved significant accomplishments, overcome stiff challenges or reached your potential in a certain area? When you reflect on your life, how fulfilled are you? Do you look at your life and career with pride, or do you regret opportunities lost and potential not realized?

Three Key Questions

If you are seeking to be a persuasive professional, you simply need to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What will the pursuit of my persuasion priority contribute to my happiness?
  2. How many more happy moments will I experience in the average day as a result of this endeavor?
  3.  When I look back several years from now, will the pursuit of this persuasion priority contribute to my overall professional and personal satisfaction? 

Keep in mind that delayed gratification and eschewing fleeting moments of happiness for longer-term satisfaction can yield much more significant results.  

Effective Persuasion Requires Effort, But Don’t Overwork Yourself

In previous posts, I’ve written about the importance of taking into consideration how much your persuasion priority is worth to you.

Now, here is another question to ask yourself: Will my efforts unreasonably and negatively impact my labor intensity? Will it require me to work more hours, juggle more tasks and take on more burdens? Is there a more effective way of achieving my persuasion priority?

One of the reasons more people aren’t more effective with their persuasion attempts is because they require too much additional effort. This concept is nothing new; too much work leads to the abandonment of ideals and priorities. The reduction of labor intensity often is considered a fundamental component of self-improvement. If you want to continue to develop and grow, it’s essential to reduce your labor intensity such that you can free your capacity for new experiences, new people and new information. The fastest way to understand this concept is to explore input and output.

Conducting a training workshop counts as input; changes in employee behavior and the overall business are the result (or the output). Conducting a focus group is the input; the accurate understanding and takeaway of the session is the output. The fastest way to reduce your labor intensity is to focus on the result, not the input. 

If your persuasion priority is to oversee a new product to market, and you want to gauge your retail channel’s likely demand, focus groups are one way to do so. If you’re able to attain a statistically sound assessment with only five focus groups, don’t plan eight. Endeavor to exert just enough effort to achieve the desired result.

Persuasion always requires effort, but you need to ensure the effort is commensurate with the payoff.  Assess the labor intensity of all your persuasion attempts.

How Are Your Stress Levels Today? You’ll Need Some Stress to Survive

Any time you reach for something new, better and different, stress will be involved. The key is determining what kind of stress you might experience with your persuasion priority.

Bad Stress

The first is distress, the sort most of us already know and experience — probably quite frequently. This is when your body responds physically and negatively to your mental state. Typically, heart rates elevate, muscles tense, teeth clench and the body releases the damaging chemical cortisol into the bloodstream. Although I’m not a doctor (and I don’t play one on TV), too much of that is never a good thing.

Good Stress

The other kind of stress is eustress — the “good” kind of stress. When you’re mentally challenged to follow a speaker’s logic, complete a challenging math problem, learn a tough piece of music or rise to the occasion and meet a pressing deadline, new neural pathways help your brain become more fit.

You also can experience eustress when you challenge yourself physically by lifting a heavier weight, running at a faster pace or increasing the incline on the treadmill. You’re forcing your body to increase your physical and cardiovascular capacity for work, which releases the positive chemical dopamine and makes you feel good about exerting energy. 

You Need Stress

You can’t live a life without any stress. Distress is inevitable, and reasonable levels of eustress should be encouraged. My mentor Alan Weiss, who penned the foreword of my book, Persuasion Equation, is a naval battle expert who often quotes Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones: “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to sail into harm’s way.”

If you want to hear “yes” more often, you’ll have to sail into harm’s way.   

Load yourself with the right kind of stress to help you continue to grow. If you pursue your chosen persuasion priority, will you be putting yourself in a position of growth — or something else?

(Photo courtesy of Gratisography.)