Dan Lovallo, a professor and decision-making researcher says, “Confirmation bias is probably the single biggest problem in business, because even the most sophisticated people get it wrong. People go out and they’re collecting the data, and they don’t realize they’re cooking the books.”
What’s this “confirmation bias” that Lovello is talking about?
No surprise, people tend to seek out information that supports their existing beliefs.
You know, liberals watch MSNBC, read the NY Times listen to BBC podcasts; conservatives watch FOX, read the WSJ and listen to Rush.
Behavioral psychologists call the he dynamic “confirmation bias”.
In socio-politics, the confirmation bias tends to harden polarized positions. People just gather debate fodder rather than probing both sides of issues.
In the realm of decision making, confirmation bias has a dysfunctional effect: it leads to bad decisions.
In their book Decisive, Chip & Dan Heath give a nice recap of confirmation bias and its effects on decision making:
Our normal habit in life is to develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief.
This problematic habit, a villain of decision making. Is called the “confirmation bias.”
When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions.
The confirmation bias is stronger in emotion-laden domains such as religion or politics.
For example, political partisans seek out media outlets that support their side but will rarely challenge their beliefs by seeking out the other side’s perspective.
The confirmation bias also increases when people have a strong underlying motive to believe one way or the other (as in Upton Sinclair’s observation, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it!”).
And, confirmation bias increases when people have previously invested a lot of time or effort in a given issue.
The tricky thing about the confirmation bias is that it can look very scientific. After all, we’re collecting data., right?
The confirmation bias doesn’t just affect what information people go looking for; it even affects what they notice in the first place.
At work and in life, we often pretend that we want truth when we’re really seeking reassurance:
And this is what’s slightly terrifying about the confirmation bias: When we want something to be true, we will spotlight the things that support it, and then, when we draw conclusions from those spotlighted scenes, we’ll congratulate ourselves on a reasoned decision. Oops.
The confirmation bias is not easily disrupted. Even the smartest psychologists, who have studied the bias for years, admit that they can’t shake it. It can’t be wiped out; it can only be reined in.
In subsequent posts, we’ll cover some of the ways to rein in confirmation bias.
Heath, Chip & Dan, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. Crown Publishing Group. 2013