Cognitive Bias: Confirmation Bias

Part 3 in our “Cognitive Bias and Leadership” Series

“Don’t believe everything you think.”

On our January 16, 2013 blog, we gave an overview of cognitive bias (our tendency to filter information through our own past experiences, likes, and dislikes) and surmised that it can lead to judgments that are faulty.  So much of positive leadership is about good decision making so we really wanted to expand on different biases.

In the third of our series, I am going to talk about Confirmation Bias – the tendency to give more weight to information that confirms we already believe to be true. Fact is, we actually seek information or evidence to confirm our existing beliefs.  And as we hear information that confirms what we believe, we feel good – rewarded and validated.

As it turns out, the confirmation bias is one of the most common cognitive biases.  And it’s not hard to see why.  We like to be right.  And having to retract previously held beliefs can be downright embarrassing.  But this can be dangerous.  Who ever says, “Let’s think inside the box on this problem?” The confirmation bias shuts down creativity, reduces learning, increases entrenchment, tarnishes corporate culture and hinders good decision-making.  And, in my experience, I have seen it show up as arrogance, bad listening skills and even the occasional “knock down, drag out” debates that goes nowhere.

There are multitudes of studies that confirm this bias but I’ll quickly highlight an Ohio State study done in 2009.   The study showed that people spend a whopping 36% more time reading an essay if it aligns with their current opinions.   Now, think about this, in this day and age of the Internet, how easy is it for us to just keep supporting what ever we prefer to believe with a quick Google search, we can feel oh-so validated.

So as a leader what can we do?  How can we create a stellar culture that breeds as much growth and learning as possible?  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Make it a practice to ask the hard questions and practice entertaining the opposite of where you stand.  Yes, think outside your own box.
  2. Make questioning part of your corporate values and integrate it into your processes.
  3. Be open to learning from others – and I am not talking about just the company leaders, either.
  4. If you feel strongly about something, attempt to look for evidence to the contrary.  Give it a chance and see if you still feel the same.
  5. If you are a manager, don’t just hire “mini me’s” but people from different backgrounds with different ideas.
  6. And finally, listen.  Really listen.

So, what did I miss?  I would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

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