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 that survive being 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.
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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:
- The Tweaking CC
- When did you last receive an email message with a "tweaking CC"? Probably yesterday. A tweaking
CC is usually a CC to your boss or possibly the entire known universe, designed to create pressure by
exposing embarrassing information.
- Begging 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?
- Totally at Home
- Getting home from work is far more than a question of transportation. What can we do to come home totally
— to move not only our bodies, but our minds and our spirits from work to home?
- Coping and Hard Lessons
- Ever have the feeling of "Uh-oh, I've made this mistake before"? Some of these oft-repeated
mistakes happen not because of obstinacy, or stupidity, or foolishness, but because the learning required
to avoid them is just plain difficult. Here are some examples of hard lessons.
- Patterns of Conflict Escalation: I
- Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic
conflict following recognizable patterns.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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