3 Tips for Overcoming Confirmation Bias

Making decisions is an important part of being human.  Some decisions, like which shirt to wear today, aren’t all that important.  But other decisions, like which person to marry, are incredibly important.

And, to be sure, we continuous improvement practitioners are also faced with lots of hard decisions.  Should we focus our efforts on learning lean or six sigma?  Which countermeasure should we choose?  How many people should be trained this year?

Another part of being is human is that we all have opinions of how the world should look especially when it comes to topics like politics, religion, and important work related situations.  And, unfortunately, these opinions often lead us towards confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias occurs when we seek out information that conforms to our existing beliefs and opinions and discounts evidence that does not conform with our existing beliefs and opinions.

As just one example… I bet you have your favorite news source.  Perhaps it’s CNN.  Perhaps it’s Fox News.  I also bet your preferred news source reports things you generally agree with.  This is classic confirmation bias since you want to read things that support your beliefs.

Confirmation bias also lives and breathes in the continuous improvement world.  We all have opinions when it comes to things like what the root cause to a problem is or what countermeasures to choose.  And to back these opinions up we often scour the interwebs for an article or case study that supports our hypothesis.  I know I’m guilty of this.

So what can be done to counter this particularly nasty cognitive bias?  I’d like to propose three things.

Imagine You Chose Poorly

The first thing I try to imagine is that I’ve already made the “decision” and things have gone poorly.  What happened?  Why did it go wrong?

I even force myself to do some “negative research.”  Say you have your heart set on that new XYZ sports car.  You know all there is to know about it since you’ve done hours and hours of “research” on all of its amazing specifications and features.  But have you ever dared to search for “XYZ problems” or “XYZ horror stories” or “XYZ recall?”  This sort of negative research can be a good confirmation bias countermeasure.

Widen Your Information Channels

Next, widening your information channels can help battle confirmation bias.  And this just doesn’t mean start reading opposing views… it means we should also do our very best to understand these opposing views.  This doesn’t mean you’ll change your view or belief… but it does mean you’ll at least understand where opposing views come from and why they believe what they believe.

Be Humble & Focus on Learning

Finally, but certainly not least, the last countermeasure I want to share is to be humble and focus on learning instead of trying to be “right.”  Pride, and wanting to be right, can be pure poison and almost always leads us towards confirmation bias.

The best technique I have personally found to battle this is to stop worrying about being right or getting my way which is far easier said than done.  But I’m trying my very best to focus on the next experiment in order to see what we can learn.  Mike Rother is fond of encouraging folks to stop debating on which solution or countermeasure is the best… instead he encourages the debate to be about which experiment to run next.

So, in a way, an excellent way to counter the need to seek out confirmation bias is to stop worrying about what you, or others, think and run your own experiments in order to see what can be learned.

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