Dealing with “ Confirmation Bias” in the Information Age


A few weeks back,  I was discussing about a supposedly secret organization (Illuminati) with a teenager, who was absolutely convinced that it really exists, has the likes of  Barack Obama as members and is literally controlling the world. In this harmless ( and fun!) discussion, I tried to disprove the idea with facts and figures, but she kept bringing up articles, write-ups and  other “proof”   ( on the internet) to underline her point of view.

This is a stark example of the abundance of information and our increasing susceptibility to fall in the trap of “ Confirmation Bias”.

What is Confirmation Bias?  In simple terms, an innate human tendency to look selectively at information so as to emphasize what is perceived as true. If I believe in telepathy, I will always remember the moments when I thought of a friend and got a call or message from him. I will ignore the multiple instances where I might have thought of him but did not get a call (or vice versa).

Confirmation Bias has been termed as “the mother of all misconceptions” and is so insidious that we never realize it is happening to us.

So Why do we do it ?  There are various reasons , among them the need to hold our beliefs, need to be proven right or to be knowing about something.( not show up as ignorant).

Confirmation Bias is surely helpful in certain ways.  It helps reduce our inner conflicts ( we give meaning to incidents and align them to what we believe) and in taking decisions ( helps strengthen our beliefs and so we can quickly take decisions we believe are the best).

But,  like medicine turning into poison,  uncontrollable Confirmation Bias  is the root of multiple ills like psychiatric problems, conflicts, superstitions, dogmas, fanciful beliefs (  Illuminati, UFO ), religious extremism /Terrorism and warring nations.  It also impacts decision making ability of Corporate  leaders, thus damaging brand reputations, losing business  or even sinking  large organizations.

This basic human thinking process has seemingly been further fueled by the abundance of information available today.

How is confirmation bias increased by excess information?  When we start “believing” in something, we start looking for ways to substantiate it. We would perceive situations, interpret others behavior or search for information that proves the belief as correct. Today, this has been hugely simplified by the information and opinions available at our fingertips.  Lets say you are being motivated to start  exercising  by your friend. You do not believe that it will truly help you. You browse the internet for write-ups on the harmful effects of exercising and substantiate your belief. You gloss over or ignore the good things written about it.

To take another example, lets say you pick up a book on “ Innovation for Organizational Success”.  In the book, you would be shown examples of organizations using Innovation for resounding success. Examples of organizations which failed would be missing. So is Innovation the best way to achieve success? The author would believe so, and is building a confirmation bias in your mind.

Everyday, as we take decisions, decide on action or structure our belief system, its truly critical to keep our Confirmation bias under control. More so, where the decision or action could impact others , our organization and/or our personal lives.

The few ways to mitigate the negative impact of this  human tendency , as popularly suggested are  :

  1. “ I do not know !“ : In the corporate world, these words are lesser spoken. There is a basic, competitive need to be knowing everything or having an opinion. In reality, there is a difference between what we know and what we “ think we know”. The need to be knowing everything makes us interpret situations incorrectly and bias them to our convenience. Accepting our ignorance could truly help move our understanding ( or a conversation) in the right direction.
  2. “Maybe I was wrong !” : The need to be proven right is a big driver of the confirmation bias. Its amazing to see senior, mature leaders  using their intellectual abilities to twist interpretations and push their biases so as to be proven right or justify a decision taken in the past. The ability to move to a neutral  space  which says “ maybe I was wrong and lets re look at the data to reach the best interpretation”, can be very effective.
  3. “ How am I wrong ?” This is a   powerful and proactive step to neutralize confirmation bias. Here we reach out  for conflicting data,  which might falsify  our beliefs. This is driven by the wisdom that what seem contradictions to our limited beliefs, if assimilated in them, could lead us to deeper/larger truths.  Charles Darwin is a known example, who meticulously recorded all conflicting data while researching about the origin of life on earth, believing that they are pointers to a larger truth.
  4. “Why do I believe?” : The last bastion to challenge is our beliefs themselves. We could start with beliefs which are superstitious or fanciful   (“If I wear my blue shirt, I have a good meeting”), as the process of breaking down a belief and assessing it objectively is a habit to be learnt. As we master the habit, it might be easier to tackle real world beliefs that are much closer to rational thinking.( “Sales teams have to be pushed /driven to get results”).

Socrates seemed to have said “ True wisdom is to know that you know nothing”, but challenging our confirmation bias could be easier said than done. This is  further compounded by the easy access to knowledge, ready interpretations and information, which could be used selectively as per our need.

Any thoughts or feedback are welcome !

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