Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 47;   November 23, 2011: Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I

Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I

by

Last updated: January 7, 2019

We continue our exploration of confirmation bias, paying special attention to the consequences it causes in the workplace. In this part, we explore its effects on our thinking.
World global temperature departures

World global temperature departures from the 1951-1980 mean. The plot shows four data sets, including NASA, NOAA, the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, and the Japan Meteorological Agency. All are very similar, and although there are significant overlaps between the respective data sources of these four agencies, each is applying its own analytical methods to that data. The CRU is the focus of what is often called "Climategate" — an allegation that climate researchers there (and presumably elsewhere) have used their scientific skill to conspire to produce a conclusion that matches their preconceptions, abusing their positions and violating their scientific integrity. The advocates of the Climategate position allege, among other things, that confirmation bias is at work in the scientific community and that global warming, if it exists at all, is not due to human activity. Scientists, including recently a scientist who had joined with the global warming deniers, have repeatedly debunked these allegations.

Interestingly, it is the advocates of Climategate who may provide the clearest examples of confirmation bias. One example of a justification of this assertion relates to what is here called "Hear no evil, see no evil." Let us concede that, across any given field of scientific research, scientific integrity is rarely upheld perfectly and that in any area of scientific research, there are instances of scientific fraud. Two critical questions then become: "What is the incidence of scientific fraud, by field of research?" and "What is the expected incidence of scientific fraud in climatology?" Finding a single instance of scientific fraud does not in itself invalidate all research in a given field, nor does it invalidate the research done by others in that field, nor does it prove that the research performed in that field is any less credible than is the research performed in other fields. Any conclusion as to the credibility of climatological research must rest on some estimate of the integrity of the field itself relative to others. But Climategate advocates have done no such studies of which I am aware, or, at least, they have not publicized this element of the argument. For them it appears to be sufficient to call into question one group's work without establishing any kind of context for their subsequent conclusions. This could be explained as an unwillingness to test their conclusions, which is a hallmark of confirmation bias. Illustration courtesy The New Republic.

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 preconceptions
often 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.

Next time we'll examine the effects of confirmation bias on management processes. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II  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!

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.

Your comments are welcome

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

About Point Lookout

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.

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:

A happy babyPeek-a-Boo and Leadership
Great leaders know what to say, what not to say, and when to say or not say it, sometimes with stunning effect. Consistently effective leadership requires superior empathy skills. Here are some things to do to improve your empathy skills.
A gray wolf. Animosity between wolves helps ensure balance.Animosity Patterns
Animosity between two people at work is often attributed to "personality clashes." While sometimes people can't get along, animosity can also be a tool for accomplishing strictly political ends. Here's a short catalog of some of its uses.
Shackleton, Scott and Wilson, of the British Antarctic Expedition 1902The Injured Teammate: II
You're a team lead, and one of the team members is suddenly very ill or has been severely injured. How do you handle it? Here are some suggestions for breaking the news to the team.
The Japanese battleship Yamato during machinery trials 20 October 1941The Focusing Illusion in Organizations
The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
A10 Thunderbolt II "Warthog"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?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A so-called "Paris Gun" of World War IComing August 12: Cognitive Biases at Work
Cognitive biases can lead us to misunderstand situations, overlook options, and make decisions we regret. The patterns of thinking that lead to cognitive biases provide speed and economy advantages, but we must manage the risks that come along with them. Available here and by RSS on August 12.
Unripe grapes that are probably sourAnd on August 19: Motivated Reasoning: I
When we prefer a certain outcome of a decision process, we risk falling into a pattern of motivated reasoning. That can cause us to gather data and construct arguments that lead to the outcome we prefer, often outside our awareness. And it can happen even when the outcome we prefer is known to threaten our safety and security. Available here and by RSS on August 19.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet 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.