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Confirmation Bias

Welcome to Part 2 in the series about cognitive biases. Critical thinking hats on…

  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to gather or interpret information that confirms our existing lines of thinking.

For example, I enjoy travelling and collect quotes and arguments for travelling (previous post) that ignore the anti-travelling view. (Is there one?!)  This is a blind spot for my critical thinking, albeit one that I recognise.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of cherry picking relevant information when time / resources are tight or when we have already settled on an answer.  However, we may regret discarding information in the future, particularly if our decisions are held up to scrutiny.

What can we do to minimise this bias?

One way is to deliberately seek out opposing views. Abraham Lincoln famously countered confirmation bias by forming his cabinet with those that publicly disagreed with him. Bold!

Creativity expert Roger Von Oech goes further and suggests we ask a fool to provide a different perspective and challenge our assumptions to stimulate our thinking.

BTW – If you are tempted into thinking this is all a bit fluffy then you may have succumbed to a confirmation bias about creativity experts; Von Oech has a Ph.D. from Stanford University and has provided creativity consulting to Apple, Disney, Sony and Intel.

The Online angle

Deliberate widening of perspective is important to guard against echo chamber thinking:

Any situation in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission inside an “enclosed” space. (Wikipedia)

Enclosed spaces such as our social communities, including online communities. Online information sources can amplify confirmation bias by creating “filter bubbles” as they increasingly personalise the information we receive according to their (flawed) understanding of our preferences.  Eli Pariser explains in this thought-provoking TED Talk (9 mins):

 

Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod illustrates this bubble in his own inimitable style:

So what can we do about it?  Please share any practical suggestions you have.

I’ve recently set up this Twitter list of ten disparate thinkers as my attempt. It’s public if you want to follow.

Published by

RobTatman

Rob is a consultant, technologist, facilitator and outdoorsman. He lives with his wife in Henley-on-Thames.

4 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias”

  1. Really interesting post, Rob.

    I often try to the adopt the ‘Miss Contrary’ approach when considering a problem I am dealing with, or planning something – I wrote about it in my blog (http://www.anacanhoto.com/Site/Ramblings/Entries/2012/2/19_Miss_Contrary.html).

    But the issue that you are raising here is much bigger than that. You may try to be balanced and fight your own bias. But how can you do that when you don’t know what is filtered out, as mentioned in the video?

    Big questions for our society, indeed.

    1. Thanks for your comment Ana.

      I like your Little Miss Contrary approach!

      It reminds me of the de Bono Thinking Hats and the Reversals or Destructive Brainstorm technique.

      I bet we could have a great stab at generating some solutions to these bias problems in a group using a combination of these techniques :-)

  2. Hey Rob

    I have two thoughts on this:

    One – live your biases and be your chosen self and just swing-your-pants (as two scholars once said on CBBC)

    ie I love Haagen Dazs Macadamia Nut Ice cream – really love it – leave it out on the counter for 5 mins before you tuck in and its even softer and consumable.

    Why would I ever try anything else. Why would I beat myself up and think differently about the opportunity to consume sugary calories.

    The second take is the critical assessment that I need to be more holistic

    I look at attitudes, arguments, mindsets, memes and align them with the Cameron & Quinn typology http://pinterest.com/pin/243898136040096241/

    A perspective can be creative, collaborative, structured or opportunistic. The good news is that you need ALL of them to be balanced and its not a problem for me if i find myself ‘feeling’ it needs to be more one way than the other. I just seek the balancing view knowing the difference gives tension but a truer course.

    Referencing Cameron & Quinn is a bit geeky – but their work was illuminating for me and I have faith in it as a self-check and sense-maker.(Its based on Jung so can be wrong…right?)

    So Haagan Dazs – you #liftMeUp! But I do acknowledge there may be other brands of frozen pleasure.

    Wishing you a good weekend

    BR

    James

    1. Hey James,

      Great comment! Entertaining and fresh as always. Haagen Dazs Macadamia Nut is now on the shopping list.

      And I really like the adapted C&Q typology as a sense-checker. As you once pointed out, “What [perspective] have I missed?”

      Cheers

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