Confirmation Bias


Like the illusion of control, confirmation bias is a common type of selective thinking.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who was convinced of something, provided examples or evidence of why they were right, and minimized your persepctive? And, all the while, you knew with a high degree of confidence that you were interpreting the issue correctly.

This situation was likely incredibly frustrating.

You could have looked at them and thought they were being difficult. On purpose.

In some cases, the other person may not really have known they were wrong. They may have truly studied the issue. But they just didn't see the evidence that would prove them wrong.

They may have been displaying confirmation bias. As a manager or business owner, knowing what confirmation bias is and how to spot it can prepare you to have better discussions and make better decisions.

Everyone comes to a situation, a meeting, or a job with beliefs and opinions. In the case of business leadership or management, you are constantly developing hypotheses about why something is performing a certain way. Confirmation bias occurs when you selectively see things in the environment or interpret information in a way that confirms your hypothesis.

This can be very bad. Especially when your selective and biased analysis is wrong. It's even worse when you become emotionally attached to it and defend it without hearing other sides of the story.

When might this happen? When your business culture punishes being wrong. Or, when emphasis is placed on providing answers instead of analysis and assessment.

Research indicates that humans tend to look for information that confirms a belief. For example, if you believe that a defect in a product is being caused by a certain person working in a process, this bias might lead you to interpret what you observe as evidence of your belief. A yawn confirms that the person is lazy. The day that person is not working, there happens to be no defects. Aha! Now you know! This could be proof, but what if it's not? What if you are biased toward that information and miss something major? Worse yet, what if you act on your belief and still have defects?

How do you prevent confirmation bias? First, remind yourself to step back and view the situation as part of a bigger system. Second, as a smart and disciplined manager or business owner, choose a systematic way to analyze the issue.

  • Communicate with your leadership team and/ or staff to define the problem. Get them involved...not in finding a solution at this point, but in understanding how you know there is a problem.

  • Gather appropriate measurements and objective observations. Empower someone else to do this also.

  • Analyze what you have learned together. Use some of the proven root cause analysis tools like a fishbone diagram.

  • Seek input and confirmation from others when deciding what to improve. Encourage them to challenge your assumptions.

  • Test your contermeasure like it was a science experiment. Nothing proves cause and effect like a controlled experiment.

It is sometimes easy to forget that we are humans working in a complex world. A world that, in many cases, is more complex than our brains can regularly and accurately process.

Great business problem solvers find ways to remove complexity, locate opportunity, and act on it. Great business problem solvers do not (regularly) let themselves succumb to confirmation bias. Instead, they approach every problem with a proven problem-solving approach. This way, they make better decisions...often with less effort. And, they make decisions that address the real problem.


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