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Volume 23, Issue 17;   April 26, 2023: Confirmation Bias and Myside Bias

Confirmation Bias and Myside Bias


Although we regard ourselves as rational, a well-established body of knowledge shows that rationality plays a less-than-central role in our decision-making process. Confirmation Bias and Myside Bias are two cognitive biases that influence our decisions.
Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany and leader of the Nazi party 1934-1945

Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany and leader of the Nazi party 1934-1945. One can speculate that a critical vulnerability of autocracies is their susceptibility to myside bias on the part of the autocrat. Strategies developed under the autocrat's close supervision might contain flaws unnoticed by the autocrat, and which subordinates might be unwilling to point out to the autocrat for fear of retaliation.

In the case of Nazi Germany, the invasion of the Soviet Union comes to mind as a decision that might have been affected by myside bias.

Other forms of government in which strategy development is a more collaborative activity might have arguably less exposure to myside bias risk. A similar speculation might apply to any entity with an autocratic governance structure — such as a business or social media platform.

Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 / CC-BY-SA, courtesy Wikimedia.org.

When modern societies and their organizations address complex problems, they aspire to do so rationally. We rely on experts and specialists for advice, wisdom, and approval of the approaches we adopt. We do this in every field, including software user interface design, urban planning, the safety and effectiveness of drugs and medical procedures, and more. Or at least, we believe we do. But belief and reality differ from each other, sometimes dramatically, in part because of a phenomenon that has come to be known as myside bias.

Myside bias in brief

It's fair to say that researchers are still working out a consensus view of what myside bias is. Some regard it as interchangeable with confirmation bias [Nickerson 1998]; others hold that it's a type of confirmation bias; still others regard myside bias and confirmation bias as distinct.

As Wolfe puts it, "Although some authors use the terms interchangeably, confirmation bias typically refers to a biased search for or weighing of evidence, whereas myside bias refers to biases in generating reasons or arguments." [Wolfe 2011] That is, confirmation bias appears in the gathering and weighing of evidence, while myside bias appears in the way we use evidence in reasoned arguments. It is this view that I favor. Myside bias is our tendency to overlook or even dismiss flaws in our own rational arguments that we easily notice in the arguments of others.

The effects of myside bias

Along Myside bias is our tendency to overlook
or even dismiss flaws in our own rational
arguments that we easily notice
in the arguments of others
the spectrum of the effects of myside bias, at the less-damaging end, we find the skepticism with which we treat the rational arguments of domain experts. At the more damaging end of that spectrum is our tendency to reject outright experts' recommendations. We might even relieve them of their positions and authority, or strip them of their credentials and certifications, or treat them with such disdain or disrespect that they voluntarily withdraw from the debate, or even resign their positions.

Myside bias is probably more likely to occur when the rational argument in question leads to conclusions different from our preconceptions. But "more likely" is the operative phrase. Myside bias can occur whether or not the conclusions of the argument in question align with our preferred positions, because it serves as a debate-rigging device. It helps us win arguments, whether we're on the "right" side or not.

It's probably for this reason that "red teams" are so effective in cyberdefense, business plan evaluation, military planning, and intelligence analysis. Red teaming might be providing a check on myside bias. And the scientific method, too, could be providing a check on myside bias through its requirement that independent researchers replicate results before the community grants acceptance. [Kolbert 2017]

Last words

In my own view, the term myside bias connotes binary polarity. That is, it suggests that there are only two sides: mine and not-mine. In actual interactions, though, we often find multiple sides, factions, alliances, schools of thought, or political parties. I wish we had settled on the term my-school bias, but oh well. Myside bias applies in any case: we tend to be better at noticing the shortcomings of the arguments others use than we are at noticing the shortcomings in the arguments we use for our own positions. Go to top Top  Next issue: Personal Feasibility Decisions  Next Issue

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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
[Wolfe 2011]
Christopher R. Wolfe. "Some empirical qualifications to the arguments for an argumentative theory," in Open Peer Commentary on "Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory," by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 34, (2011) 57-111. Available here. Retrieved 9 April 2023. Back
[Kolbert 2017]
Elizabeth Kolbert. "Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason," The New Yorker, February 19, 2017. Available here. Retrieved 10 April 2023. Back

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See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

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To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
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When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

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