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

by

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, 105:3, 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. [Nickerson 1998]

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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Nickerson 1998]
Raymond S. Nickerson. "Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises," Review of General Psychology 2:2 (1998), 175-220. Available here. Retrieved 22 April 2021. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Two raccoons passing a rumor alongResponding to Rumors
Have you ever heard nasty rumors about yourself? When rumors are damaging, they can hurt our careers, our self-esteem, and even our health. Sadly, our response to rumors often compounds the serious damage they do.
A wishing wandYour Wishing Wand
Wishing — for ourselves, for others, or for all — helps us focus on what we really want. When we know what we really want, we're ready to make the little moves that make it happen. Here's a little user's guide for your wishing wand.
Bull Elk Antler Sparring for Dominance in their herdBelieve 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.
Circular reasoningBegging the Question
Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
Tornado in a mature stage of development (Photo #3 of a series of classic photographs)Responding to Threats: II
When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.

See also Emotions at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938Coming March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
The S.S. Eastland, in Cleveland, Ohio, around 1911And on March 13: On Anticipating Consequences
Much of what goes wrong when we change systems to improve them falls into a category we call unanticipated consequences. Even when we lack models that can project these results accurately, morphological analysis that can help us avoid much misery. Available here and by RSS on March 13.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.