Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to seek confirmation of our preconceptions, while we avoid information that might contradict them. It can also cause us to tend to overvalue information supporting our preconceptions, and undervalue information in conflict with them.
Last time, we explored indicators that confirmation bias might be taking place. Let's now explore how confirmation bias affects our thinking. Here are five ways people use confirmation bias — often outside their awareness — to reinforce their preconceptions.
- Hear no evil, see no evil
- We use many techniques for avoiding information that conflicts with preconceptions. In meetings, we deprive people of the floor if we regard their positions as threats to our preconceptions, or we're inattentive when they speak, or we place their agenda items last, hoping to run out of time. We ignore what they write and we distract others from paying attention to their contributions. For conferences, we use peer review to exclude them from programs altogether; we assign them to small, undesirable, or out-of-the-way venues; we schedule them for undesirable time slots; or we schedule them opposite events that we expect to be heavily attended.
- Consider carefully the spectrum of information sources to which you do pay attention. When others make choices for you (as happens in conferences), think about what has been excluded from the program.
- False memories
- Most research about false memories relates to the recovered memory techniques in common use a decade ago. In the workplace, false memories also play a role. When we recollect what someone said or wrote, we're risking confirmation bias.
- Take extra care when retrieving memories that support positions you hold — memory tends to provide data that supports what we believe, and it tends not to provide data that conflicts with what we believe.
- False reasoning
- When reasoning is subtle, we sometimes make mistakes. But when reasoning isn't especially challenging, we can still make errors, especially when we hurry or we're under stress.
- Because of confirmation bias, these errors tend to favor our preconceptions. Examine carefully any reasoned argument that supports preconceptions.
- False accusations
- Accusations subjected to testing against evidence are more likely to be valid. By limiting such testing, confirmation bias tends to increase the likelihood that accusations are false.
- Accusations need not be verbalized. Even when they're merely thoughts, they affect how we interact with the accused. Such accusations are especially prone to confirmation bias, because they are rarely subject to confrontation with evidence.
- Tiptoeing around the elephants
- The "elephant in the room" The "elephant in the room"
often takes the form of
information that contradicts
our preconceptionsoften takes the form of information that contradicts what we hope to be true — information that contradicts our preconceptions. Confirmation bias helps us defend against these contradictions.
- When you sense the presence of an elephant in the room, check for contradictions of the group's hopes, dreams, and preconceptions.
For more about "the elephant in the room," see "Stalking the Elephant in the Room: I," Point Lookout for June 9, 2010. For more about false accusations, see "Political Framing: Strategies," Point Lookout for May 6, 2009.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Inappropriate Levels of Regard
- The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they
do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.
- Not Really Part of the Team: I
- Some team members hang back. They show little initiative and have little social contact with other team
members. How does this come about?
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Patterns of Conflict Escalation: I
- Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic
conflict following recognizable patterns.
- Heart with Mind
- We say people have "heart" when they continue to pursue a goal despite obstacles that would
discourage almost everyone. We say that people are stubborn when they continue to pursue a goal that
we regard as unachievable. What are our choices when achieving the goal is difficult?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 20: Managing Dissent Risk
- In group decision making, dissent risk is the risk that dissents about important decisions will be rejected without due consideration. As a result, group decision quality can suffer, and some groups will actually eject dissenters. How can we manage dissent risk? Available here and by RSS on June 20.
- And on June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
- In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
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- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald
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