Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 46;   November 16, 2011: I've Been Right All Along

I've Been Right All Along

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As people, we're very good at forming and holding beliefs and opinions despite nagging doubts. These doubts lead us to search for confirmation of our beliefs, and to reject information that might conflict with our beliefs. Often, this process causes us to persist in believing nonsense. How can we tell when this is happening?
A glass of red wine

A glass of red wine. In a fascinating study of the effects of marketing cues on the assessment of product quality, researchers conducted a blind wine tasting of three samples under laboratory conditions. The subjects were told only the prices of the wines. Without the subjects' knowledge, one sample was offered twice, once with a low price and once with a high price. All subjects consistently preferred the one they thought was more expensive. To study brain activity, the experiment was conducted using functional magnetic resonance imaging of the subjects' brains. Brain activity indicated that subjects actually experienced enhanced pleasantness when they believed they were consuming more expensive wine. See "Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness," by Hilke Plassmann, John O'Doherty, Baba Shiv, and Antonio Rangel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 22, 2008, vol. 105, no. 3, pp. 1050-1054.

When groups make decisions about complex issues, and when complete information isn't available, they do the best they can. Sometimes they believe they're doing the best they can, but they're mistaken in that belief. One pattern that leads groups (and individuals) astray is known as confirmation bias — the tendency to search for or interpret information so as to confirm one's preconceptions.

We make decisions based in part on prevailing beliefs — what we hold to be true about the matter at hand. Confirmation bias distorts our decision-making in three ways. It limits our access to information, it causes us to undervalue information that contradicts prevailing beliefs, and it causes us to overvalue information that confirms prevailing beliefs. Confirmation bias tends to degrade decision quality.

Oddly, even the most educated, intelligent, and accomplished among us are vulnerable to confirmation bias. Here are three indicators that a group discussion might be distorted by confirmation bias.

Anecdotal evidence
As a group debates the validity of a hypothesis, advocates might offer an anecdote — a narrative about a specific incident — to confirm their position. Anecdotes, even if true, cannot prove anything. They can only disprove, and to do that, they must be true.
Anecdotes can serve only two purposes. They can be illustrations of a hypothesis, or they can disprove a hypothesis. And numbers make no difference. A million anecdotes consistent with a hypothesis do not outweigh one anecdote that provides a counterexample.
Eerie correlations of unlikely conditions
Some believeConfirmation bias tends to
degrade decision quality
that hypotheses can be proven by patterns of unlikely events or conditions. Most noticeable when used by conspiracy theorists, this line of pseudo-reasoning is very common, though less noticed, in more mundane discussions as well. For instance, it might be used in product development, as a group speculates about the possible motives or next moves of a competitor, based on a series of hires the competitor recently made.
A humorous example of this kind of thinking is the probably apocryphal quote often attributed to the late actor Paul Newman: "24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence? I think not."
Evidence consisting of failure to disprove
Failure to disprove a hypothesis doesn't, in itself, constitute proof of the hypothesis — it simply leaves the hypothesis standing. Some feel that if fifteen attempts to disprove fail, and only two succeed, then the odds are good that the hypothesis is true.
Not so. If an attempt to disprove the hypothesis does succeed, then the hypothesis is disproved. There's wiggle room only if the various attempts to disprove are each suggestive, but inconclusive.

Next time we'll examine some of the effects of confirmation bias on thought processes.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I  Next Issue

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