What is confirmation bias and why do you need to know about it?
Confirmation bias is pervasive in all levels of human society. It stems from our prehistoric caveman days when we all hung out in tribes. We learned what it was to be a member of the tribe and to look at strangers as "not of my tribe".
Let's look at the definition of confirmation bias. The Oxford dictionary defines it as:
The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
About Psychology.com defines it as:
A confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias that involves favoring information that confirms previously existing beliefs or biases. For example, imagine that a person holds a belief that left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people. Whenever this person encounters a person that is both left-handed and creative, they place greater importance on this "evidence" supporting their already existing belief. This individual might even seek out "proof" that further backs up this belief, while discounting examples that do not support this idea.
So you can see that confirmation bias gets in the way a bit. A bit, rather more like alot. It pervades everything we do. Within the context of our family we tend to "see" each family member within this bias and even ascribe qualities to them that they may not have. Little Johnny is always a good pupil, those last few test scores are the fault of his teacher. We want to confirm our beliefs.
Many experiments in the social sciences have to guard against confirmation biases in codifying the results. Taking the confirmation bias out of the experiment is hard work and requires a high degree of mindfulness.
At work we assume various roles within the hierarchy (read tribe) and these roles tend to stick even in the face of overwhelming evidence against. Has anyone experienced groupthink? The tendency for groups to begin to think alike even when those thoughts or actions goes against their personal beliefs, values and ethics. The power of belonging to a tribe is deep and ancient and very powerful.
One of the most damaging areas that confirmation bias is prevalent in is Talent Management- particularly Recruitment. When we seek to hire others to join our group our confirmation bias is well and truly centre stage. We tend to hire people who look like us, think like us, wear clothes like us. Who look like they are members of our tribe. This results in a lack of diversity, lack of innovation and may indeed contribute to employee disengagement. After all if we're all so alike and agreeable how do we know when something is wrong or shouldn't be pursued?
How do we rid ourselves of confirmation bias? We need to be more mindful, pay more attention to the things happening around us and ask questions – why are we choosing to go this way? Is it because it's easy or is there another way? Pay attention and ask questions – don't accept things just "because it's always been done that way before".
“Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.”
Terry Pratchett through the character Lord Vetinari from his novel, “The Truth: a novel of Discworld"
Here's a little snippet from a Disney favourite to show what confirmation bias can look like.