Step 3: Make Smarter Decisions by Overcoming Confirmation Bias

In the midst of all the current political rhetoric, do you tend to automatically believe what your preferred candidate or party posits? Do you ever try to objectively listen to the opposing party’s position? Do you watch all the news channels to gain multiple perspectives? It’s hard to do because it’s uncomfortable. Your party’s position tends to reinforce your existing self-image, which is within your comfort zone. The reason it’s uncomfortable is due to your own confirmation bias. We tend to rely on and actively search for information that will confirm our existing view of the world and support our existing hypotheses. At the same time, we instinctively avoid information that might disconfirm our preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. We have a stubborn attachment to existing beliefs.

Our confirmation bias causes us to overlook disconfirming data because we’re not looking for data that disconfirms our beliefs, and we’re not even aware we’re doing this. As humans, we tend to assimilate data in a biased manner. We have this bias assimilation because we like and tend to remember evidence that backs up what we already believe. We cannot detach ourselves from existing beliefs—they’re ingrained in us. Your beliefs are a part of who you are.

I guarantee that your confirmation bias has limited possible solutions and decision options for you, both in personal life and in business. If you perceive a project to be a success, you will seek out and tend to believe data illustrating success and ignore signals of potential failure or loss. If you perceive a colleague as an antagonist, you will overlook ally-type behavior and miss an opportunity to collaborate. Confirmation bias is a source of overconfidence and helps explain why optimists tend to remain optimists and pessimists tend to remain pessimists, regardless of the data they are presented.

How can you overcome confirmation bias?

  1. Be aware of your natural ability to be biased toward confirmatory information and think about how it may affect your decision-making abilities.
  2. Do not jump to conclusions! Resist the temptation to make knee-jerk decisions. Gather more data and generate more potential hypotheses.
  3. When you’re presented with product or project findings, keep your eyes and ears open to all possible outcomes. Don’t stick to only one possible perspective or outcome. Look for unanticipated opportunities.
  4. Follow the Rule of Three: identify three potential causes for each situation. By drafting three hypotheses, you are more likely to identify risks and successes. Once you generate your three hypotheses, seek evidence that not only confirms your hypotheses (confirmation bias), but actively seek evidence that contradicts your hypothesis (i.e. play devil’s advocate). You will make a smarter decision in the end if you seek to disconfirm your decision hypotheses rather than to confirm them.
  5. Engage in contrarian analysis: assign people to make counter arguments to poke holes in existing beliefs and assumptions.
  6. Seek out people with different opinions to make better-informed decisions.
  7. Be cautious about over-reliance on experts in your organization. Experts are wedded to their existing beliefs, and it’s difficult for them to recognize or overcome ingrained positions. They have their own confirmation biases.
  8. If you employ only internal SMEs (subject matter experts), you may be suffering from overconfidence bias. You need to consider blending internal and external expertise.
  9. When possible, get feedback on your decision options so you don’t repeat past mistakes. Also build in a mechanism for rapid feedback on decisions you make in the future.
  10. Employ unbiased, third-party experts. Outsiders bring a fresh perspective. They do not have the same reference points or emotional attachments to investments and projects. They also lack your preexisting hypotheses and the political egocentrism.

Smarter People Planning protects you from falling into cognitive traps by offering an objective, outsider perspective and alerting you to potential pitfalls.

What business decision are you going to make differently now that you are aware of the confirmation bias?