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.
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- Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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