Confirmation Bias – Do You Really Have An Open Mind?

“A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest” – Paul Simon.

It’s universally accepted that having an open mind is an important factor for professional success.  Popular business concepts such as diversity and “thinking outside the box” are based on the notion that good ideas frequently arise from beyond an individual’s conventional thought framework.  Most professionals would say that they are open to change, ready to make decisions and judgements on the most current,  “correct” evidence.  Unfortunately, significant scientific research shows otherwise; people are innately stubborn and extremely resistant to changing their viewpoints.

Individuals have a strong tendency to seek opinions and ideas from sources that reflect their own ideology.  When they are confronted with ideas that dis-confirm their opinions, they tend to disregard the information.  They either ignore the ideas completely or discredit the source.  Psychology researchers have named this phenomenon, confirmation bias, part of a larger family of cognitive biases.  Researchers believe that confirmation bias stems from the great discomfort people feel upon realizing that they are wrong about something.  It is easier to rationalize or ignore new evidence, then to recognize that one might

A study performed at Stanford University in 1979 demonstrated confirmation bias in action.  A total of 48 undergraduate students participated in the experiment, with half being pro-death penalty, believing in its deterrent effects and believing that most studies supported their view.  The other 24 participants were anti-death penalty, doubting its deterrent effect, and believing that most research supported their view.  Each of the participants was shown excerpts from 2 fictitious studies, one supporting a deterrent effect for the death penalty and one showing no deterrence.

As predicted, the students, saw the supporting study as valid and the study that contradicted their views as flawed.  A typical comment for supporting studies was that it was well constructed, carefully examined and interpreted properly by researchers.  A typical comment for opposing studies was that the data was incorrectly selected, poorly interpreted or was for an invalid time period. In addition to the anecdotal comments, the students also demonstrated a polarization of views through quantitative results.  That is, the students numerical self-ratings of the strength of their belief increased at the end of the study.  So being exposed to a balanced set of “expert” data caused the students to believe even more strongly in their original view.

A common workplace example of confirmation bias is seen when we consider the performance and effectiveness of our colleagues.  Frequently, we have a set view of an individual’s performance.  This view may have been formed from a single encounter (positive or negative), through second hand information (e.g. the rumor mill) or through stereotypes that we hold.  In the case of stereotypes, we might have a “vibe” that Joe is disciplined but shallow because he dresses professionally or that John is bright, but disorganized because he dresses like a classic IT geek.  If we catch Joe unable to answer a technical question or see that John is running behind on a project, we conclude that our views were right.  If we see the reverse scenario, Joe demonstrating technical depth or John demonstrating timeliness, we tend to ignore it.  If we want to discuss Joe or John’s performance with other colleagues, we tend to seek out those of like mind.  If we run into colleagues with alternate opinions, as seen the in the death penalty study, we tend to discredit the value of opposing views.

Confirmation bias is a common and insidious problem that can keep us from making accurate judgements and decisions in our personal and professional lives.  Since it is hardwired into our human nature, it is difficult to see and to resist.  It is far easier to spot confirmation bias at work in others then in ourselves.  The primary defense against confirmation bias is a healthy sense of self-awareness coupled with humility.  When making decisions and judgements, keep the following thoughts in mind:

  • Why do I hold my current beliefs?
  • What impact would there be on my ego and pride if I were to learn that my views were incorrect?
  • Have I genuinely sought out alternative viewpoints?
  • Is it possible that I am simply wrong?
  • Pretend that you are supporting an alternative viewpoint.  Walkthrough a plausible explanation supporting that perspective.

Having a healthy understanding of confirmation bias can make you a better critical thinker and decision maker.  A good starting point is to observe the bias in others, both in the workplace and in your personal life.  When you are feeling passionate about an issue or person, stop yourself and run through the bulleted checklist above.  See if you can observe yourself falling victim to confirmation bias.  While it can be painful to admit  that your beliefs were misguided, it can ultimately result in better decisions and improved relationships.  Give it a try!

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6 Responses to Confirmation Bias – Do You Really Have An Open Mind?

  1. Neil Hecht says:

    It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it! – Upton Sinclair

    Confirmation bias is one of the most troubling aspects of society today.

    It is amazing that intelligent people can use the exact same standard for two different problems and arrive at different conclusions.

    Dick Cheney often talked about the 1% question. If there was a 1% chance of a disaster, terrorist bombing, taking place then we needed to take whatever actions were necessary to prevent it. There is a certain logic to that position whether you agree with it or not.

    However, when you ask Dick Cheney about Global Warming you get a completely different answer. It seems reasonable that there is more than a 1% chance of a worldwide disaster taking place but it doesn’t make sense to do anything at all to try and prevent the disaster.

    Someone said that you should ask yourself what it would take to change your mind. If no amount of evidence will change your mind then your belief is not logical.

    Many people believe that raising taxes is bad for the economy and the stock market. Using the last 30 years of history, you will see that there is very little evidence to support that position.

    We had a massive tax increase in 1982 and the economy took off in 1983.
    We had a massive tax increase in 1990 and the economy began expanding.
    We had another massive tax increase in 1993 and the economy grew for 7 years.

    We had a massive tax cut in 1981 and the economy went (continued) into a recession.
    We had a massive tax cut in the early 2000’s and the economy went into a recession.

    Now, this is far from proof that tax cuts are good or bad. However, it is fairly substantial evidence to refute the belief that tax cuts are good and tax increases are bad. After all, the collapse of the economy in 2008 occurred with no significant change in tax policy.

    • Dan says:

      Neil,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. There is no question that confirmation bias is an overwhelming factor in causing people to stick to political positions. The more we have invested emotionally in a viewpoint, the more likely we are to stick to our guns, irrespective of disconfirming evidence. Another common twist on this is when a political figure is accused or convicted of a crime or unethical behavior. Supporters are more inclined to excuse the behavior or dismiss the charges. Opponents are ready to condemn the individual and link the negative behavior to his political views.

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