Understanding confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is a well-known psychological effect. It describes the tendency for an individual to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that supports what is already believed. The concept, while easy to understand, is quite difficult to interrupt. This is because cognitive biases (conscious and unconscious) are fed by emotions. The phenomenon is particularly pronounced when the issue is highly important or self-relevant.
How does this relate to leadership?
Confirmation biases can lead even the smartest and most experienced individuals into making poor decisions. So, as leaders, we need to choose ways of interrupting this cycle. We do so by actively fostering and building an environment that minimizes opportunities for biases to become a decision trap.
It begs the question: why do we have biases in the first place?
We are routinely bombarded with information from a wide range of sources. It is impossible to take the time to diligently process each piece of information to reach an unbiased decision. Each of us processes information from our own point of view, in other words, our life experience, education, and beliefs. We also tend to use confirmation bias to protect our self-esteem. Innately, we prefer to feel good about ourselves. So, uncovering something that challenges this belief can result in us feeling bad about ourselves. For instance, we like to feel intelligent, and uncovering a mistake which raises doubt in one of our prior decisions might suggest we lack intelligence.
The good news is there are a couple of key skills that help us minimize confirmation bias:
- Challenging our own narrative
- Playing the devil’s advocate
Challenge your own narrative
This is about challenging our own beliefs and being willing and open to considering the possibility that additional information received raises questions we need to consider.
A comfortable way to approach challenging oneself is by putting ourselves in the shoes of another and asking some key questions. For instance, imagine that you are a strong supporter of Mohamed and are recommending him to an R&D executive to work on a new intelligent battery for electric vehicles (EV). Your recommendation comes, in large part, because you are friends. You believe that Mohamed would be a good fit with the company’s culture. And, you have no reason to doubt his past successes and accomplishments. This situation is a prime candidate for the risk of confirmation bias. That is, our personal beliefs and feelings influence our judgment. So, by challenging ourselves in this case, we could stop and reflect on some key questions before making the recommendation:
- Does Mohamed really want the job?
- Am I pushing him as my friend to consider a role that he isn’t excited to do?
- Would Mohamed want the role if not for my personal recommendation?
- How well do I know Mohamed professionally, or it is just a personal relationship?
- Am I willing to put my professional reputation on the line for Mohamed?
The key element in this process is to consider whether we are being objective and balanced in our views (or recommendations). By asking the tough questions, we can pull out the objectivity needed to confirm that the decision is absent bias.
Playing the devil’s advocate
Taking a balanced devil’s advocate position is one where we seek to elicit a range of views, opinions, and perspectives to allow us (and others) to see the full picture. This means moving away from the traditional approach of focusing only on what might go wrong and opening the discussion to allow for the possibility of a future we want to see unfold. We achieve this by encouraging multiple perspectives, new and radical ideas, and an openness to embracing change – often this is just what we need in turbulent and uncertain times.
The balanced devil’s advocate can allow us to see what could “go right” so that we can move toward it. We will, of course, consider risks, challenges, and concerns, but we focus on using these new insights and scenarios to update or refine our views, strategy, or approach so that it’s a more robust one.
A few key questions to jump-start this balanced role are:
- What could go right in this situation?
- What does a “new future, approach, view, or strategy” look like?
- How could we make xxx or yyy work?
Most of the time, we face making day-to-day decisions with partial information. This situation naturally exposes us to the risk of confirmation bias. To manoeuvre through this situation, it is important that we reflect on alternatives. Such as considering what would happen if we make a different decision. We do this by challenging our own narrative and playing a balanced devil’s advocate allowing us to re-evaluate our decision using additional information, perspectives, or opinions. Even after all of this, we may still hold incomplete information. However, our decisions will be more balanced and far less prone to confirmation bias.
Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your advice with others on how you address the potential blind spot of confirmation biases in your personal or professional life.
Give it a try!
Cartoon credit: Kris Straub, Chainsawsuit.com