Countering confirmation bias: seek the opposite


Confirmation bias is one of the most significant obstacles to good data-driven decision-making.

The old adage “Seeing is believing” has been misleading us for years. The reality is the opposite: believing is seeing. What we believe has a much greater impact on how we see data (if we even “see” it at all).

Not only do our brains tend to seek data to prove themselves correct, they often stop as soon as they find some.

I regularly test this idea in my Rethinking Data workshop. I’ll ask people to imagine that they took a quick glance through a report.  I then ask what they’d do if that glance revealed the opposite of what they expected? Think about it for a second. What would YOU do?

Most people tell me that they’d take a deeper and more careful look at the report.

Then I ask them what happens when, during that more thorough review, they find some data that agrees with what they expected to see. In this case most people tell me they’d stop looking.

Then, I flip the scenario. What would people do if upon that quick glance, the report agrees with what they expected? You guessed it. THEY STOP LOOKING right away.

So, when the data don’t agree, we seek more. When the data agree, we stop looking. You don’t need a PhD in Cognitive Psychology to recognize confirmation bias.

Unfortunately, there is little that we can do to STOP confirmation bias (or any bias for that matter). Biases happen in our sub-conscious. We can’t control them.

However, we can counter them with some simple critical thinking techniques.

In the case of confirmation bias, one technique is simple.

Look for the opposite of what you expected.

For example, suppose that sales have been slipping for the past three months.

Now imagine that you are looking at your latest sales report. Your brain is most likely going to be primed to find further evidence of poor sales.

Once it finds one or two data points confirming poor sales, it will stop.

This is where you can consciously counter confirmation bias.

Change your question and look at the report again. In this case, ask yourself “Is there any data that show sales doing well?”.

You might be surprised. By changing your question (and therefore your expectation), you might notice things you originally missed.

Here are two more practical examples of how seeking the opposite can help counter confirmation bias.

Recruiting/hiring

Imagine you are interviewing a candidate who you think is perfect for a job. Before making your final decision, ask yourself, “What jobs WOULDN’T be a good fit for this candidate?” Changing your expectation might cause you to look more critically at the candidate. It might also help you see through the non-job-related factors which influenced your decision.

This also works the other way around. If you have a candidate who doesn’t seem to be a good fit, simply ask yourself what job would be good for this person.

Selecting an annuity

Recently my financial advisor presented two annuity products to me. She made a strong case for one of them. I thought to myself, “This is a no-brainer, that one seems perfect”. However, before making my decision, I asked her to explain when that annuity wouldn’t be a good choice. I then asked her to explain when the other annuity would be a better choice. Once she explained both, I was more ready to make my decision. It also showed me that she wasn’t simply cherry-picking data to support the product that she wanted to sell.

We can’t stop our biases. However, if we are aware of them, we can take steps to counteract their impact.

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Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, Speaker, and Author with Avail Advisors. Avail’s Rethinking Data workshop will teach you how to work with your data in ways that counter and decrease the impact of decision-making biases. Contact Brad at brad.kolar@availadvisors.com.

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