Our brains filter information 24/7. Some information makes it to our consciousness, some doesn’t. Some information we believe. Other we dismiss. A hidden process in our brains causes us to make assumptions, judgements, and decisions without having all the information. It is called the confirmation bias.
What Is The Confirmation Bias?
It is our human tendency to develop a belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief.
In Decisive, authors Chip and Dan Heath write give an example of Smokers in the 1960s, when effects from smoking were less clear, “were more likely to express interest in reading an article headlined ‘Smoking Does Not Lead To Lung Cancer’ than one with a headline ‘Smoking Leads To Lung Cancer.’”
Put simply, we seek out self-serving information to reinforce what we believe about situations, research, people…anything.
The Confirmation Bias Creates Blind Spots
Suppose your daughter has been down in the dumps since moving to a new school. When you ask her what’s going on she tells you, “I don’t fit in.” She proceeds to explain that she didn’t make the volleyball team last week, no one sat by her at lunch today, and she wasn’t invited to a sleepover this weekend that two other girls in her class were.
However, she neglected to mention that several girls sat down next to her at lunch on Thursday, she high fives from her teammates in gym class, and two classmates complimented her outfit today.
The confirmation bias filtered out evidence that didn’t match your daughter’s belief – “I don’t fit in.” It caused her to completely overlooked the evidence that contradicted her belief.
The worst part is that the confirmation bias isn’t intentional. It just happens!
Deeper Beliefs Magnify the Confirmation Bias
The confirmation bias acts on our beliefs. The stronger the belief, the more powerful the confirmation bias. For example, the confirmation bias will tighten its filter for the belief, “I suck at math,” moreso than my belief, “Everyone will notice that spot on my shirt.” My belief about math is much deeper than what I believe about people’s abilities to notice that I spilt coffee on myself.
Why Is That A Problem?
This gets in the way when it comes to how we make decisions in life and evaluate our abilities.
Dan Lovallo, professor at the University of Sydney and decision-making researcher said, “Confirmation bias is probably the single biggest problem in business, because even the most sophisticated get it wrong. People go out and they’re collecting the data, and they don’t even realize they’re cooking the books.”
If I believe I’m a good parent, leader, brother, coach, typist, etc….I won’t notice the evidence that suggests otherwise. I become less likely to seek other’s opinions. I dismiss anything that goes against my belief.
I certainly won’t pursue opportunities to learn and grow in an area that I believe I’ve mastered. I’ll keep doing the same ineffective things again and again with a blind eye toward my shortcomings.
No Belief Is Too Small
Do you think Payton Manning is the best NFL quarterback to play the game? If so, you might highlight that he is the only quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams. On the other hand, if you believe he isn’t the best quarterback you might site the record-setting number of interceptions he threw in the 2015-2016 regular season.
How to Fight the Confirmation Bias
Now that you know the confirmation bias exists, what can you do about it?
1. Be Skeptical
Whether you think your child is an angel or believe your boss has it out for you, be skeptical of the evidence supporting those beliefs. The confirmation bias is filtering out the evidence that disproves your theory.
2. Be Proactive
When it comes to making key decisions, choice, and judgement calls seek out counter evidence. Reality test your assumptions. Act like a detective. Does your child drive you crazy on occasion? If so, perhaps they aren’t the sweet little angel at school all day like you’d hoped.
You’ll have to dig deep here. Like a good detective, seek out evidence that is based on facts. What is observable? What can be measured?
The point here is to make sure that you gain a more accurate understanding of the situation – not based on brain filtered assumptions.
3. Act With Confidence
Now you’ve played the skeptic with your own beliefs. You’ve verified the facts. Essentially, you’ve overcome the confirmation bias because you now have all the information. The information you have is reliable because it is based on facts and is measurable. You now have the best information with which to move forward.
You are ready to take action, make that decision, or argue your point. You can do so with much more confidence knowing that your beliefs didn’t go unchecked. You can identify room for improvement in yourself with more clarity and accuracy.
Overcome the Confirmation Bias
By keeping a heightened awareness and a skeptical mindset you’ll detect those times when the confirmation bias is at work on your thoughts and beliefs. I pick out the confirmation bias in myself and others on a daily basis now that I’m attuned to it. Then, by hunting the evidence counter to your gut reactions, you can gain more clarity and accuracy in your thinking. Sometimes you may need to help others do the same. In all, you’ll become more effective in how you think, lead, and make decisions on a daily basis. It all starts with fighting the confirmation bias.
- Post: Decisive: How To Make Better Choices In Life And Work by Chip and Dan Heath
- Post: The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte