The problem with confirmation bias
Research First? What!?!
Humans make decisions first and then do their research, and that’s backward.
Here’s a trap plenty of us fall into again and again.
- Have an idea.
- “Somebody Smart” questions the idea.
- Call a friend.
- Friend tells us it’s a good idea.
- “See, it’s a great idea!”
- Carry out the great idea.
- Great idea often turns out to be a bad idea.
- Oh well, it was fun anyway.
- “Somebody Smart” rolls their eyes.
- Aaaand… repeat.
Academics have a name for this behavior: it’s called Confirmation Bias. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s the process of making a decision before we do our research. Not only do we put the cart before the horse, but when we actually get around to doing our “research,” it just consists of gathering evidence that supports what we’ve already decided and summarily dismissing everything that disagrees with us.
We all do this. And it’s an incredibly difficult habit to break. But that’s not to say impossible.
There is one way I’ve found to circumvent this behavior. I call it the Confirmation Bias Prevention Program. Here’s how it works.
- Find someone who disagrees with a decision you’re about to make.
- Ask them why they disagree with you.
- Carefully listen to what they have to say. Listen, as Stephen R. Covey says, “with the goal to understand, not to be understood.”
- Continue listening until you can honestly say, “I now understand why you believe that.”
That’s it, it’s that simple. This doesn’t guarantee you won’t do the thing you want to do… but that’s not the point. The point is to carefully and thoughtfully analyze the pros and cons of a decision so you can make it in an unbiased way. And the Confirmation Bias Prevention Program is a great step in that direction.