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

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