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Confirmation Bias

May 30, 2020 1:36:14 PM / by Tim McCarthy

I have become familiar with the study of heuristics over the years.  If I keep it simple, heuristics are mental shortcuts that help us make decisions and judgments.  I learn a lot from thinking about how I come to decisions particularly when faced with complex issues.

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If I understand more about heuristics I use to make decisions, then I improve my chances to make better decisions.

A good friend, Nate Bissell, is a great storyteller.  Recently, he told me that he once took a seven-point quiz to find if he had confirmation bias.  As he happily checked off each of the first six questions with “no” he was startled when his answer to the last one was “yes”.  That’s because the last question was “did you quickly answer no to all six questions above?  If yes, you likely have confirmation bias.”

Confirmation bias is something we all do.  It is in our human nature to look more favorably at data that confirms decisions we have already made.  If I buy a certain car, I am forever looking to confirm and defend that I used good judgment in making such a large purchase.  My house, my spouse, my job choice, my politics, my religion, my kids…the list is endless.  I have argued myself into many corners defending my errors in judgment.

Justifying or watering down unfavorable facts makes us feel safer.  To defend our own we might say, “My kid is a great student stuck with a lousy teacher”.  Off we go looking for data to support our theory:  mistakes and inequities caused by this teacher, this school, our education system.

The risk of seeing things as they are is that we may be disappointed, think less of ourselves or those who are important to us because new information may prove our earlier view was wrong.

But there is a bigger risk when confirmation bias goes unchecked:  stupidity.    

A great blogger I follow, Dr. Mardy Grothe, describes stupidity in this way: “Stupidity is not the absence of intelligence so much as it is the rejection of intelligence.”

Are you open minded?  Do you seek better information after you’ve made a decision so that you might learn more, even if it requires you to change your position?  Or are you clinging to your rightness or expertise? 

Ignorance is forgivable.  I am ignorant about most things simply because I have not experienced or learned about them, but I strive to avoid stupidity – persistent ignorance in the face of better information.



Tim McCarthy

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Tim McCarthy

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