How to Confront Confirmation Bias
A couple of years ago I was working with some teams in the city of Den Haag/ The Hague in the Netherlands. One afternoon I stopped by a little round building, paid a small fair, and ventured up a winding staircase to see one of the few surviving 19th century piece of art called panorama. Now, most people today know of panorama as that feature on your camera phone, but back in the 1800's, this was quite revolutionary.
In fact, entire structures were built to highlight the beauty of this unique art. In the Netherlands, I entered from the bustling city street, went up a winding staircase, and then found myself immersed in a peaceful sandy beach. Furthermore, the museum included sounds of waves and seagulls. At the base of the canvas, the artist filled the ground with sand and objects from the beach like seashells, an old buoy, and beach towels. I looked out and couldn't tell where the painting began or ended due to a slit curvature of the canvas. I was surrounded by information that told me that I was at a calm sandy beach even though I knew that actually surrounded by a city. I felt like Mary Poppins hopping into the scenes of a picture.
Author and Columbia University professor Martin Meisel described this art "In its impact... a comprehensive form, the representation not of the segment of a world, but of a world entire seen from a focal height." The artists documented every detail of a scene, by doing so they created a world complete in and of itself. I was no longer in the city, I was ready to grab my sunscreen for a day at the beach.
As I thought of this experience, it really made me think about the power of confirmation bias and how it can have a major impact on our decisions. How can we confront confirmation bias in our decision making?
First - don't jump to conclusions. Seek to gather data from a variety of sources and don't be too quick to form a decision without all of the right information first. Oftentimes, we already have an idea in our head of what decision we are leaning towards and hastily or haphazardly gathered data can help solidify the decision without all of the proper information. This can lead people to become ignorant of information and ideas that contradict preconceived notions. In a team setting, confirmation bias can lead to small minded group think. So, ask yourself - what factors could cloud my judgement or provide bias in my decision making? Is it an idea that your project will work? Won't work? If I really really really wanted to be at the beach, then I had plenty of information around me to confirm that I was at the beach. Without asking any other questions, I could have sat surrounded by the sounds of waves and seagulls in ignorant bliss - it sounds nice, but it is incorrect. Gather all of the relevant data first.
Next, I challenge you to try and prove yourself wrong. In the heart of confirmation bias, the mind will often subconsciously ignore contradictory evidence. If I want to rollout a new initiative in 4 months when all evidence says that it is going to take 7, I can find enough data to skew the decision. I may collect the data of a smaller company that had a 4 month roll out, a company with a larger resource team, assume longer hours, assume there will be no errors, and so fourth whenever giving the prediction. So, instead ask, "What would be the factors/reasons why we wouldn't meet the deadline in 4 months?" Find reasons why your inclination could be wrong. In some team scenarios, this could be an assigned devils advocate, a person that will challenge and conflict in a pursuit to see a situation from a different angle.
Also, take time. The short-term emotion and excitement of a bold undertaking often tempt leaders to neglect thinking twice about their high-risk decision. It is in this time of hype and excitement that leaders and residents alike are quick to make poorly thought out decisions that outlast the final events. Whether good or bad, make sure that you take the time to breathe and make sure that your decisions are not made in haste.
Lastly, and this is a big one, leave flexibility for when you find new information. Sometimes, we have been a victim of confirmation bias and didn't realize it, sometimes we have new information that arises after a decision has been made, sometimes the situation changes. In any case, this doesn't mean that you have to be stubborn in your first decision, leave the flexibility to acknowledge and adjust when there is new information. I often say, "I reserve the right to be smarter tomorrow than I am today, but based off of the information that I have now, this is the best decision and direction that I believe is right." I encouraged leadership teams to use this a lot during the COVID pandemic, we were getting new information all of the time!
Extreme confirmation bias can lead to folly in decision making. Even with the panorama painting, many people from the Romantic period felt that it was nothing more than a deceitful illusion requiring insultingly low levels of aptitude. My of my favorite poets, William Wordsworth, alluded to the panorama in Book Seven of The Prelude with disdain. From the very pretense, Wordsworth felt like the the panorama lulled viewers into a world without requiring much interpretation of the art. In a way, I get his point. It's generally easier to find information that confirms our single viewpoint than gather a lot of information from different viewpoints and interpret the data. That latter is more work, but more worthwhile in making better decisions.
So, here's what I want you to do - I want you to look at your data collection. Are your collecting information from multiple sides to create a more well rounded, better educated decision?