Avoiding confirmation bias in decision making

The key to success is to wear stripy socks. Barack Obama wears stripy socks. Elon Musk wears stripy socks. Kim Jong-un wears stripy socks. Buy my new book and learn how wearing stripy socks can make you successful, too. Complete with case studies of other successful people who wear stripy socks. And my personal recommendation on the best stripy socks for you.

This is, of course, a load of rubbish. Stripy socks do not, as far as I know, play any role in determining success in life. And I have no idea whatsoever what socks Barack, Elon or Mr. Kim wear. Or, indeed, if they wear socks at all.

But if you’ve ever read one of the management self-help books you pick up in airport lounges, or in the little WH Smiths on railway station concourses, the formula will appear suspiciously familiar. Here’s my big idea. Here are six case studies of bright, rich and sexy people whose success shows that my idea is right. And here’s how you can make it work for you, too.

It is, of course, possible that some successful people have a tendency to wear striped socks. But that does not mean that it is the act of selecting and donning stripy socks that makes them successful. It’s very probably something else, like supreme talent, hard work or rich parents. And it is quite possible that some stripy sock fanatics are, to put it as gently as I can, complete and utter losers.

The way in which books like this take an idea, find some case studies to support it, and make it into A Big Thing is an example of what psychologists call confirmation bias. But it’s not something that’s confined to management self-help books. It’s all around us. And we’re all guilty of it far more frequently than we’d like to admit.

Confirmation bias is the tendency for us to search for and to favour evidence that supports our existing opinions or beliefs. It means that we accept evidence that supports our views, reject evidence that does not, and selectively interpret evidence so that it tells us what we want to hear.

Confirmation bias affects how we search for information, how we interpret information and how we recall information.

More specifically, psychologists tell us that confirmation bias can mean that people exposed to the same evidence can come to very different conclusions. They can also continue to believe things even after they’ve been presented with evidence that these things are untrue. Confirmation bias can lead people to place greater reliance on evidence that they encounter early on, as opposed to evidence that they encounter subsequently. It can also mean that people falsely perceive an association between unconnected events or situations.

None of these are good.

They mean that we come to the wrong conclusions because we don’t look at the evidence objectively. They mean that we continue with courses of action even when the evidence says they’re not working. They mean that we listen more to those who say what we want to hear.

They lead the police to keep pursuing their initial suspect, despite overwhelming evidence of innocence. They result in leaders continuing with a flawed strategy because the messages showing it’s not working aren’t getting through. They allow the proliferation of social media ‘bubbles’, fake news, mass hysteria‚Ķ and, apparently, the Salem witch trials.

So how can we combat confirmation bias in our thinking and in the thinking of others?

As with many forms of bias, recognising that it exists is probably the most crucial step. Beyond that, there are a few more things we can do to stop ourselves from falling into the confirmatory trap.

Firstly, we can accept that sometimes – just sometimes, mind – we might be wrong. And that it’s OK. We all make mistakes. Or we come across new evidence that makes us change our mind. The only thing worse than being wrong is to be wrong but not know it.

Secondly, we can try to gather as much evidence as possible before we make a decision. That way, we won’t get swayed by the first evidence we come across and can look at things in the round once we’ve gathered evidence from a number and range of sources.

And thirdly, we can continually test our ideas, our hypotheses and our beliefs, to make sure that they’re still consistent with the full range of evidence that we have at our disposal. If we were to be wrong, how would this become apparent? How would we know?

Alternatively, you could just go out and buy yourself a pair of stripy socks. Because, so I’ve heard, they make you infallible and destined for success.

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