Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs and theories. And it is the only way to explain how Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts can simultaneously be seen as breaking every Boy Scout rule and upholding the values of the Boy Scouts. We hear what we want to hear. Regardless of your own beliefs, you can’t listen to the daily and starkly opposing interpretations of every political news story and not be impressed with the incredible power of confirmation bias.
Of course, you might conclude that only the idiots on the opposite side of each issue are guilty of confirmation bias. You might be quite sure that your interpretation is the only rational and fact-based reaction. You’d be wrong.
For months now, I’ve listened to both sides repeat the details and half truths that support their positions. Too many people are way too sure they are right and anyone with differing views must be stupid. Too many operate with partial facts. Too many spread “news” from sources that specialize in emotions, not reality. Too many are fired up by insults and insinuations against “the enemy.” This is true of people on both sides of the aisle. It takes great discipline and self-awareness not to become part of the problem, especially when emotions run high.
But confirmation bias isn’t just a political phenomena. Nor is it counterproductive only in a political context. Not by a long shot.
- Supervisors who are rubbed wrong by an employee will constantly see evidence of inadequate performance while forgiving repeated mistakes from more compatible, likable employees.
- An executive who didn’t buy into the corporate strategy from the start constantly finds evidence of its flaws and rarely spots evidence of its success.
- Teenagers who expect criticism and clueless parents see evidence in every parental action.
To avoid confirmation bias, you must first recognize it. When are you quick to think “I knew it!” or “Here we go again!”? What’s your gut reaction to a juicy political revelation? Pause before you speak. Pay attention to reactions – yours and the people around you. Some listen, consider, and ask questions. Others jump on the bandwagon in the blink of an eye.
Once you start seeing confirmation bias in yourself and others, it’s a lot easier to stifle those gut reactions and allow cooler heads to prevail. It’s the “pause that refreshes” and that allows you to:
- Acknowledge the many things you don’t actually know about the situation – everything from the veracity of the claims to the intentions of others.
- Separate facts from opinion.
- Ask clarifying questions.
Whether you are dealing with politics, employee behavior, or teenagers, objective clarity is worth practicing. Your employees, family, company, and country will thank you!
Does your staff leap to conclusions about people and situations? Could you and your staff benefit from objective clarity? Give me a call. Let’s talk. Maybe I can be of service. 617-939-9654.