I’ve been thinking a lot about decision-making this week, and particularly the way in which I approach evidence.
I like to think of myself as a bit of a healthy skeptic. When I’m presented with a viewpoint I wonder where the supporting evidence is. When presented with evidence, I try to think carefully about the source of that evidence and to assess its quality. Overall, I think I do a pretty good job at filtering the high-quality evidence from that which is misleading, biased, or even wholly fictional.
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that I’m wrong. The evidence suggests that most of us are actually pretty poor at judging the quality of evidence.
All of us have any number of unconscious biases.
These are patterns of thought and responses that we fall into without ever knowing that they’re there. These biases have a huge impact on how we receive and process information, which in turn dictates a great deal of our decision-making process. Increasing our awareness of these biases allows us to examine what information we accept easily and to notice times when we are allowing our biases to override the evidence and, hopefully, helps us to be a little more open to new ideas. With that in mind, here’s my take on one of the cognitive biases I think causes the most difficulties in business.
The unfair high-jump competition. This is commonly known as a confirmation bias, but we all know I love a good sporting metaphor. This is where we make the bar for evidence far, far higher for ideas that disagree with our existing position than we do for those with which we already agree.
It makes sense really.
Finding evidence for something we already believe is true makes us feel good. We like feeling good, so we automatically feel that this is high-quality evidence. A significant part of that is that we don’t instinctively seek flaws in evidence that agrees with our viewpoint. The high jump bar for evidence that agrees with our position is pretty much at knee height.
When the evidence disagrees with our initial position the bar rises, and it can rise really high. The more deeply held our convictions, the higher the bar goes. We mentally prod the evidence, looking for weaknesses or ways to discredit or discount it.
It’s important that we understand when we’re starting to enter into these types of competition and to be prepared to stop and think about our thinking. There are a few warning signs that we might be starting to engage this type of cognitive bias:
- We have a strong emotional reaction to some pieces of evidence. This suggests that we feel our position is being attacked.
- Our first thought after being presented with evidence is “yes, but”. This is a sign that we’re not taking the first piece of evidence seriously or assessing it on it’s merits.
- On the other side of things, when our first thought after being offered evidence is “well, obviously”, it can be a sign that we’re not being sufficiently critical of confirmatory evidence.
Confirmation bias can be a huge issue in business. We’re more likely to listen to ideas that agree with our underlying beliefs, meaning that we’re less open to new ways of working and novel solutions. We accumulate evidence that supports our expectations, which makes it harder for us to understand what went wrong when our expectations conflict with reality. If we can’t identify a problem, we can’t fix it and the whole process can repeat many times over.
There isn’t a silver bullet for dealing with confirmation bias, but I would argue that there is something close.
Inquisitiveness is the antithesis of a rigid worldview. Being inquisitive, about anything and everything, allows us to hold ideas lightly and to question them without defences. The question “why” can sometimes feel very interrogative, where the inquisitive “I wonder…” opens up a realm of possibilities.
I know from working with my clients that, most often, if they start a sentence with “I wonder” a change is about to come, and it’s gonna be a good one.