Is Confirmation Bias keeping you from succeeding?

Confirmation Bias is defined as  “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” On the surface that sounds like a fairly innocent issue – we look for information that bolsters our current beliefs.

The problem is that confirmation bias makes it really difficult to change our minds (and our positions) on things when we really are wrong – and because it’s mostly done subconsciously, we don’t even know it’s happening.

That means when you’re trying to make a decision on something it’s highly likely that you already have a preconceived belief on how that decision will play out and any time you spend ‘researching’ options isn’t going to make a difference.

This article from Psychology Today does a nice job of explaining how confirmation bias works and why we strongly tend towards thinking this way. This is the kind of problem that impacts us a lot, and if you’re a business owner or leader, it’s also impacting all of those people who work for you.

So what can you do to combat confirmation bias? Here are a few suggestions:

Reality-test Your Assumptions

Just being aware that we are all subject to confirmation bias will help us recognize it, but here are a few additional strategies to try (from the book Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath):

  • When reviewing multiple options in a contested decision, ask the question on each “What would have to be true for this to be the best option?”
  • Ask tough disconfirming questions as a regular part of your research. Things like “What problems does this solution have?”
  • When dealing with decisions involving other people, assume positive intent. If someone says something you perceive as negative, by assuming positive intent, you can remain open enough to find other potential reasons for their actions. You will stay engaged and curious rather than angry or upset.
  • Consider the opposite – purposely violate one of your key assumptions and see what happens.
  • Look for objective, external data as a reality check. Find the ‘base rate’ that applies to your situation (i.e. ‘60% of restaurants fail in this part of town’ or ‘It typically takes 2 years to become profitable’).
  • Go to the ‘genba’ (Japanese for the real place…or where the action is happening). Rather than looking abstractly from a distance, zoom in to get the real flavor for the objective external data. (eg. 50% dislike a restaurant, but looking at the comments it’s because of the price, not the food quality).

The last idea for combating confirmation bias is ‘Ooching’ – basically a made up term that means try something a little bit and see how it goes. Nothing is ever going to tell you as much as reality itself, so if it’s possible, try your options out in the real world and see what happens.

It turns out ‘ooching’ is important because we are really bad at predictions. A scientist named Phil Tetlock gathered over 82,000 predictions from experts, PhDs and pundits. Results? He found no one was able to perform as well as you could with a simple extrapolation from previous performance.  By the way, this also applies to our ability to predict employee success with interviews – studies have shown that interviews are horribly inaccurate when it comes to predicting whether a new employee will deliver or not. You’re much better off doing a trial period with a potential employee if possible.

What are your thoughts on confirmation bias? In hindsight, can you think of some bad decisions that were made because assumptions weren’t really challenged? Have you ever gotten upset with someone because you believed something that just wasn’t true?

We’d love to hear your thoughts – leave us a comment below.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach