This article appeared in March 2020, in Romanian, in BIZ magazine
Five years ago, I wrote an article in Biz Magazine entitled “On the virtue of changing one’s mind”, in which I argued that flexibility is an essential quality for a leader and I analyzed some cognitive / social mechanisms that prevent us from changing our minds: groupthink (because they all say the same thing), appeal to authority (because that’s what the boss says), the recoil effect (because it’s a belief that defines me), argumentation as a duel (because I’m no one’s fool) and status-quo (why change anything?). Today’s article continues that lecture and analyzes, using the same model (description, illustration, treatment), another mechanism – confirmation bias (because I have proof that I am right). That’s probably the most important mechanism through which we hold ourselves pathologically close to deep beliefs. You should know that I am leaving some material for a future episode.
Confirmation bias – Because I have proof that I am right
We automatically search and take into consideration only information that confirms our point of view. At the same time, we look elsewhere and find puerile justifications against information that contradicts us. Ignoring information that disconfirms what we believe is probably more dangerous than looking exclusively for evidence that shows we are right.
A famous example is told by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner in their book, “Superforecasting”: in 2010, when Federal Reserve implemented a policy of quantitative easing to counter the financial crisis, many economists and economic advisors published an open letter to Ben Bernanke, former Chair of the Federal Reserve, asking him to stop the policy because it will lead to an uncontrolled increase in inflation. The advice was ignored, the monetary policy was implemented and the inflation didn’t rise at all.
In 2014, Bloomberg reporters asked the experts who signed the letter what are their thoughts after 4 years from its publication. They all said they were right in 2010 and that they are still right. Either inflation is not being measured properly, or the letter has not been read properly, or inflation is knocking at the door. Inflation has not risen to this day.
A rooted form of confirmation bias is self-serving bias, meaning the tendency to explain ourselves the good results through our positive nature and the negative results through the hostile context. And vice versa when it comes to others. If I am late, it’s because Victoriei area was really crowded. If you are late, it’s because you don’t respect other people. If you get a raise, it’s because you were lucky enough and the boss liked you. If I get a raise, it’s because I deserve it, look how much I’ve worked this week. We all think like that, I just hope that, now that we know how it’s called, both the author and the readers will try to do it less often.
Confirmation bias is also manifested in science people (I worked for a year on this study, the experiment that invalidates my theory cannot be correct; I will do it differently), in managers (after launching kiwi flavored beer, I’ll do a market research asking consumers what they like best about the new product) and, actually, in everyone (when we argue with someone, think about how easily arguments and information that supports our point of view comes to our minds; why don’t counter-arguments come to mind that easily?). This last effect is called motivated reasoning and describes how we post-rationalize our preferences.
A study led by Dan Kahan (2017) shows that we know how to identify a mistake in the design of an experiment, when research is about a hand cream (a neutral subject), but not when the experiment confirms the need for greater control of firearms (and we are great supporters of this public policy). And education doesn’t decrease, but potentiates the political bias. The more educated we get, the more we tend to ignore errors in the arguments that support our dear beliefs.
Unfortunately, confirmation bias has often been observed at the organizational level, when early signs of poor management decisions are systematically ignored by both decision makers and their colleagues who are close to the reality of the market.
What can we do?
Before taking an important decision, we must actively seek information that contradicts our position. It’s useful to bring to the decision table someone who will play the role of devil’s advocate, same as in group thinking, described in the previous article.
Another way to counteract confirmation bias is to put neutral questions when asking for advice or doing market research and not questions that guide respondents to what we want to hear (as in the above example with the kiwi beer). A good book in this regard is “The Mom Test” that teaches us to ask neutral questions to which our mother can answer objectively.
I will conclude by recommending an interesting book, “Thinking in Bets”, written by Annie Duke, psychologist and poker champion. The author combines those two perspectives to talk about decisions, beliefs and flexibility and from which I stole the following trick: when the interlocutor is 100% convinced of something and your attempts to weaken his conviction have failed, make a bet with him that it’s not like that. A bet on money, a lot of money. As Adrian Stanciu recently wrote in “Biz”, you can’t convince anyone of anything, people actually convince themselves.
By making a bet, you turn the other person’s inner monologue (“it’s as I say”) into an inner dialogue like “it’s as I say” / “wait a minute, if it’s not like that, I will lose money…how sure am I, though?”. Having this doubt will make the other person more open to hearing your arguments. Obviously, this trick is even more efficient when we try it on ourselves.
In order to make our beliefs more flexible, besides the bet trick, Duke proposes to stop looking at beliefs as certainties with possible values 0% or 100% and to start looking at their nuances. Let’s try to give a percentage value to our deep beliefs on which decisions with important consequences are based. For example, my belief that I’m a good investor will make me continue to evaluate opportunities as before. However, if I force myself to give a percentage value to this belief, any value other that 100% will make me think about how can I improve my strategy.
What’s an important belief on which your business strategy is based? How sure are you, in percentages, that you’re right? Would you be willing to bet on this? A lot of money?