Four Ways to Overcome Confirmation Bias

overwhelming-disproof-confirmation-bias-1The biggest decision-making bias for all of us is the confirmation bias.

Wikipedia explains it well:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. It is an important type of cognitive bias that has a significant effect on the proper functioning of society by distorting evidence-based decision-making.

As a leader, we are tasked with making effective decisions for both the long and short term.  To do this, we need to base our decisions on the evidence available to us.  As such, we need to overcome our natural confirmation bias.

Why Confirmation Bias?

The human mind has evolved to rationalize our decisions so that we appear (in our own minds) to have not made mistakes and to be consistent in our thinking.  This is a defense mechanism that helps us maintain our self-esteem and self-confidence.  This tendency is seen most often in our desire to avoid the unease and tension that arise in cognitive dissonance – when we hold two beliefs that contradict each other.

Quite simply, once we have latched onto a belief or opinion it takes a lot of mental work to change that belief or opinion.  It is mentally less taxing to just re-interpret new data to reinforce what we already believe than to use the new data to evolve or change our belief.  Like many of us, our brains are lazy and thus default to the mentally less taxing solution.  Thus arises confirmation bias.

 

The Danger of Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias distorts proper decision-making.

  1. Confirmation bias leads us to make incorrect decisions based on initial evidence. This can be seen in many criminal investigation and scientific research where the person creates an initial hypothesis and continues to support that hypothesis even when all evidence points in another direction.  This leads to flawed investigations and flawed (and, at times, doctored) research.  We also see confirmation bias in the challenge many of us face in overcoming a poor first impression.
  1. Confirmation Bias also leads us into one track thinking through the “Einstellung Effect” which occurs when we have an existing solution in mind, thus making it harder for us to see a different but better way to solve a problem.

Overcoming Confirmation Bias

As a fundamental feature of the way our human mind works, we all suffer from confirmation bias; we cannot avoid it, but we can overcome it.  To overcome our confirmation bias, we should consider the following:

  1. Avoid snap judgments and forming opinions quickly. We cannot judge books, people or ideas by the cover or initial interaction.  We need to avoid forming hypothesis until more of the evidence has been evaluated.  And we shouldn’t share our initial opinions or hypotheses verbally or in writing with others (such actions can imprint the opinion in our mind making it harder to reverse).
  1. Embrace the Antithesis: As I have written about previously (Embrace the Antithesis for Better Decisions), we need to spend time thinking through the opposite of what our initial thought or hypothesis is. We need to take the ‘con’ position and think through all the counter arguments to the decision.
  1. Develop Opinions Separately: In team decision making, we need to discuss passionately the evidence.  Then, we need to let each person come up with their own opinions and have each of us write our opinions or views them down.  Finally, we should then share the opinions, with the lowest – ranking employee speaking first and the boss speaking last (so that the boss’s view does not taint what a subordinate might say).
  1. Devil’s Advocate: Alternatively, we can have someone we respect play the role of a devil’s advocate arguing against the hypothesis or decision. As with developing opinions separately, this leads to a better decision as the Devil’s Advocate may point out some flaws and some challenges with the initial hypothesis.  As Rita Gunther from Columbia Business School writes:

“Guard against ‘confirmation bias’ by giving one team member the job of looking for flaws.”

 

Conclusion

The first step to better decision making is to have the humility to realize that we are all subject to decision-making biases with confirmation bias being the biggie of them all.  The second step is to follow some of the guidelines – avoiding snap judgments, embracing the antithesis, developing opinions separately, and having dedicated ‘devil’s advocate – to overcome our confirmation bias.

 

About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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