Concept of the Day: Confirmation Bias

I spend much of my life reviewing other people’s work and I think I do a reasonably good job of it but I’ve been thinking recently about whether I use a bit too much confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is when you favour something because it agrees with what you thought. It’s confirmation bias that plays a major part in the ability of conspiracy theories to take hold and propagate. Confirmation bias also plays a major role in the proliferation of dubious healthy foods and diets. But confirmation bias can have far more significant impacts, it plays a major role in organisations’ inability to adapt to changing markets resulting in people loosing their jobs, it helps to create financial bubbles and crashes, it also causes doctors to overlook people’s real ailments because they are too focussed on finding the disease that they think it is.

Francis Bacon summed up the problem of confirmation bias with these words:

“It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.”

During the review processes that I participate in people present their solution to a problem posed by a customer. I’ve started to notice that it’s much easier to recommend solutions that look like the solution I would have proposed, compared to ones that are different to the way I would have done it. I would tell myself that this was because they were easier to understand, but I wonder whether this isn’t just subconscious confirmation bias.

The real challenge is to know the difference between experience and confirmation bias. Both experience and bias look and feel quite similar, but their value is radically different.

I recently listened to Dan Pink’s Office Hours discussion with Chip and Dan Heath on their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. They spend quite a lot of time discussion confirmation bias and different techniques to overcome it. I’ve set myself a bit of a task over the next few months to integrate some of these techniques into the review processes trying to flush out some of the confirmation bias that I’m sure exists.

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