There are a lot of factors that influence the quality of our decisions…including sneaky cognitive biases that impact us even when we try to be thoughtful and rational. Learn what the confirmation bias is, how it can impact your decision-making process, and how you can counteract it.
An Example of the Confirmation Bias
Consider this hypothetical. A leader, concerned about a decrease in productivity over the past several months, is determined to figure out a solution. In his own experience, he feels more focused at the office where there are fewer distractions because his kids aren’t interrupting him. As he starts to consider whether that might be the case for his employees, he readily compiles a list of evidence: several people had to miss meetings in the last month because of childcare needs, there are so many emails and DMs that went unanswered for hours for unknown reasons causing delays, and virtual brainstorming sessions seem decidedly less creative or innovative. Based on this information, he concludes that being in the office will boost productivity, and he implements a policy requiring employees to be in person 3 days a week.
And productivity actually goes down.
This leader did his due diligence, gathering information, drawing a sound conclusion, and coming up with a targeted solution.
Unfortunately, his decision-making process may have unwittingly been impacted by the confirmation bias.
The Confirmation Bias at Work
Because our brains have to process so much information so quickly, they’ve developed some shortcuts or heuristics to speed things up. One of those is the confirmation bias. This refers to our brain’s tendency to seek out evidence that confirms what we already believe to be true while overlooking or dismissing evidence to the contrary. It has nothing to do with intellect, intent, or character. This filtering typically happens outside of our conscious awareness, so we’re being led astray without even realizing it.
Returning to our thoughtful leader, he held a belief, based on his personal experience, that working from home is distracting. In addition, he assumed that it is distractions that are zapping productivity. Whether he knew it or not, those beliefs shaped his fact-finding mission and the conclusions he drew.
Our brains love a target. Have you’ve ever been to a zoo that has little signs with information and pictures of the enclosed animals? Those pictures are to give your brain a target – Find this! And it does. It filters out all of the distracting stimuli, seeking out that animal, and it makes it way easier to find that little creature.
That’s what our leader’s brain did, too. It had the target – look for proof of distractions – and it found a ton. And our leader drew a reasonable conclusion based on the available evidence.
But the evidence was skewed from the beginning.
Confused and frustrated that the return to the office policy seemed to have backfired, he consulted his team and as well as outside sources. Two new insights arose: 1) employees are experiencing burnout that is limiting their bandwidth and creativity, which was further compounded by returning to the office, and 2) the latest hire didn’t mesh well with the team and was having a negative impact on the culture. With these new “targets,” our leader can gather more evidence and, perhaps, come to more accurate conclusions and solutions.
The confirmation bias affects both data collection and its evaluation and can lead us to confidently make poor decisions. And, like it or not, we are all susceptible to it because it’s a built in feature of our brains. We must intentionally work to overcome it.
Tips to Try
This month, protect yourself from the unintended consequences of the confirmation bias with these strategies.
1. Be aware that it exists.
Now that you know what the confirmation bias is, be on the look out for it so you can be proactive in countering it.
2. Uncover your brain’s hidden targets.
When you are faced with a decision – for example, how to resolve an issue, performance evaluations, or even how to feel about your job, ask yourself these questions:
- What do I already believe to be true about this? (e.g., that home has more distractions, that this employee is a hard-worker, that leadership doesn’t value me)
- What assumptions am I making?
- Do I already have a theory or hypothesis about this?
Questions like these will at least make you pause to consider what target you may have, inadvertently, set for your brain that will skew what evidence it finds.
3. Intentionally look for evidence to the contrary.
Play devil’s advocate. Make yourself look for and actually find evidence that goes against those hidden targets, assumptions, and beliefs. For example, if you believe that Employee A is a hard worker, you will readily find ample proof of it. Make your brain also look for evidence that she is not. You may still conclude that she is, overall, a hard worker who deserves a glowing review, but you’ll know that this conclusion was based on all of the facts, not a biased sampling.
4. Come at it from a different angle.
Once you’ve gathered unbiased evidence by looking for both sides, ask yourself what are three possible ways to interpret this information? Making yourself view the information from multiple angles helps ensure that the confirmation bias isn’t causing you to jump to conclusions or bend the evidence to fit your agenda.
5. Enlist the help of objective third parties.
Ask neutral third parties to help you gather evidence and draw conclusions. While they also have their own confirmation biases to content with, chances are their brains will have different targets when it comes to the task at hand, and they may help you get a more robust, unbiased view of the situation, ultimately, allowing you to make better decisions.
If you are interested in learning more ways to help you and your team develop this vital skill, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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