Regular readers know survivor bias is our favorite bias here at Small Business Labs. But if we had a 2nd favorite bias, it would be confirmation bias. This is the tendency for people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses.
There's been a flurry of recent articles on confirmation bias:
1. Doctors, Scientists say fracking critics misrepresent some facts to make their points is from the Washington Post. It covers the many erroneous claims being made by opponents of natural gas fracking. Key quote:
"Critics of fracking often raise alarms about groundwater pollution, air pollution, and cancer risks, and there are still many uncertainties. But some of the claims have little — or nothing— to back them."
2. When Bad Theories Happen to Good Scientists from the Wall Street Journal looks at how scientists tend to try to prove their theories rather than see whether or not they correct. Key quote on how they behave:
"They not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges their theories."
3. We're all Climate Change Idiots from the New York Times talks about how most Americans have a hard time with issues like climate change. Confirmation bias is a major factor, as illustrated by this quote:
"We also tend to pay attention to information that reinforces what we already believe and dismiss evidence that would require us to change our minds ..."
We run into confirmation bias all the time and struggle with it ourselves.
Our goal as researchers is to go where the data takes us - and it sometimes takes us to places our clients and audience don't want to go. When this happens we're amazed the lengths some people will go to ignore or discredit the facts.
Most times confirmation bias just hurts a business, but it can also kill. Kodak is a great example. They managed to convince themselves digital photography was not going to go mainstream despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Our advice on dealing with confirmation bias is:
- try to base decisions on hard data. This isn't always possible, but the rise of data and analytics means small businesses can be more analytical in their decision making. Our Big Data category covers this trend in more detail.
- get multiple perspectives on key decisions. We often interview experts from other fields when we're studing a problem. They bring a different perspective and are more willing to challenge conventional wisdom. They're also more willing to challenge our assumptions and analysis.
- Spend some time identifying and understanding what your views and beliefs are and how they may be impacting your decision making. For example, we're very pro small business and self-employment. Because of this we have to constantly challenge ourselves not to let this bias blind us from seeing negatives in these areas.
- Have strong opinions, but hold them weakly. In our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world change is the only constant. Be open to change and accept that even some of our most strongly held business views and beliefs will likely have to change at some point.