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 Top Next Issue
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- The Fallacy of the False Cause
- Although we sometimes make decisions with incomplete information, we do the best we can, given what
we know. Sometimes, we make wrong decisions not because we have incomplete information, but because
we make mistakes in how we reason about the information we do have.
- Conflict Haiku
- When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing
that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups
into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
- Believe It or Else
- When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future
action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
- Coercion by Presupposition
- Coercion, physical or psychological, has no place in the workplace. Yet we see it and experience it
frequently. We can end the use of presupposition as a tool of coercion, but only if we take personal
responsibility for ending it.
- Contribution Misattribution
- In teams, acknowledging people for their contributions is essential for encouraging high performance.
Failing to do so can be expensive. Three patterns of contribution misattribution are especially costly:
theft, rejection/transmigration, and eliding.
See also Emotions at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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