Making Better Decisions: Confirmation Bias
by Luba Koziy, Consultant
It’s time to address the elephant in the room. This is my fourth blog post on mental biases and heuristics and still I haven’t mentioned what is probably the most common bias in the workplace: confirmation bias. So, let’s dive right in.
As you may already know, confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. Confirmation bias also explains the tendency to ignore information that opposes one’s preexisting beliefs. Why do so many of us (including myself) do this? It’s simple: humans like being right. It bring us psychological joy when our beliefs are confirmed, and we actually endure psychological stress when we find out that we were wrong about something. That’s why, for example, when I get into an argument with my fiancé, it’s so hard for me to admit that (for once) he was right and I was wrong.
Let’s look at an example of confirmation bias at work. Let’s say that at Company X, there are two HR managers, Kevin and Alisha. Kevin believes that the company should be focusing on purpose and helping employees’ find their own purposes, both at work and in their personal lives. He believes that this will translate to better psychological health and create happier and more productive employees. Alisha, on the other hand, believes that the company should be focusing on digital transformation and getting ahead of this new digital age. She believes that if Company X doesn’t do this soon, then they will lose to their competition, Company Y. If Kevin and Alisha are both reading the news and they see an article titled “Why Purpose-Driven Companies are Winning,” clearly Kevin will be thrilled. He’ll send this article to his director to prove the usefulness of purpose in the workplace. Conversely, if they see an article titled “What Every Company Needs to Get Right: Digital Transformation,” Kevin will be less thrilled and will not be motivated to click on this article. Alisha, however, will be more than happy to share this with her director to convince him that the company’s resources should be allocated to going digital.
In this situation, which manager is right? Well, I don’t know (I should actually say “it depends” because that’s every consultant’s favorite answer). The point is not about who is right or wrong about the future, it’s that both managers are consciously ignoring information that could be useful to them and their companies regardless of their personal opinions.
This is where confirmation bias can be dangerous. We spend so much time trying to prove that we’re right, we often miss critical information about something new that perhaps we haven’t even thought about. This can also cause us to ignore red flags. If Kevin saw an article titled “Finding Purpose Really Doesn’t Motivate Employees,” do you think he would click on the article? Likely not. But what if this article contained factual, statistically significant data proving that purpose-led employees really aren’t more productive? Kevin just missed out on an opportunity to learn something new, and will continue spending his time on an initiative that may not actually lead to great business results.
When companies ask for help executing their strategies or transforming their organizations through cultural shifts, what they’re really asking for is help thinking differently. Organizations want to be challenged to think about changes and strategies in new ways because they realize that they may be stuck in their own confirmation biases. These companies, the ones who understand the importance of being challenged in hopes of learning something new at the expense of being wrong, are the ones that are most successful in navigating the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.
The moral of the story is that we need to become more comfortable with being wrong. We need to realize that there is more value in being wrong and learning something new than being right and learning nothing. Click on those articles that go against your beliefs. Engage with the people that are trying to prove you’re wrong. You never know where you’ll find new information that debunks your own confirmation biases and will help you make better decisions.