Leaders Know Cognitive Biases Can Hurt Team Decisions (Part 7)

In my work with teams who make decisions together about tactics, strategy, and personnel, logical fallacies and cognitive biases show up, so I’m going to write a few posts about some of the most common. This is the seventh post in this series. You can find links to the first six posts at the bottom of this one.

Cognitive Bias: Confirmation Bias and Belief Bias

I’m writing about these two together, because they’re related.

Definitions: Confirmation Bias is favoring thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that confirm existing beliefs. Belief Bias is the act of rationalizing thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that support existing beliefs.

Simple Examples:

Belief bias: I believe the compliment sandwich is the best way to give feedback, and I use previous experiences to justify my continued use of it.

Confirmation bias: Once, when delivering a compliment sandwich to someone, they became more engaged and productive. This happened accidentally based on the quality of that person, but the experience cemented my belief.

(Note: The compliment sandwich is not inherently effective and can cause damage.)

What it looks like:

I have a friend, Lewis, who believes in conspiracy theories. He thinks secret organizations are hiding a lot of facts which will only be revealed after the election.

Recently, he posted something online that “proved” his theory—an article with the date 11/6/20.

He commented, “Someone slipped and posted it early! SEE!?? Look what they’re hiding!”

Someone pointed out, “Um, Lewis, that’s a British source. 11/6 means June 11th. Not November 6.”

That’s confirmation bias.

But Lewis is always looking for proof for his theories. Even things that disprove them, he regards as fake news planted by the conspirators. That’s belief bias.

I’ve noticed I’m subject to the same biases. There’s an educational program called PBIS, and I don’t like it. Recently, I needed to defend my position, and I had no trouble finding articles supporting it. I searched for “the problem with PBIS” and the top hits for me included:

6 Reasons Why PBIS is a Terrible Idea
PBIS is Broken: How Do We Fix It?
Why Dangling Rewards in Front of Students and Teachers is Counterproductive

Then, I started writing this post.

I realized I also needed to search for “PBIS is effective evidence.”

Top hits included:

What is PBIS? (and several other pages from the PBIS center).
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: A Multi-tiered Framework that Works for Every Student
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

Now, I haven’t changed my mind—some of the supporting evidence comes from the center for PBIS itself. However, I am better able to understand the point of view of PBIS supporters and see situations where it does more good than harm. I’m less judge-y of the supporters now.

The point is, we all succumb to Confirmation Bias and Belief Bias daily, especially if we are using the internet as a source of information. Besides the wording of our searches, nearly every search engine knows our history and tends to show us stuff we agree with already.

What to do?

We are primed to agree with ideas that fit our preconceptions and dismiss information which conflicts with them. It is difficult to set aside our existing ideas and consider the true merits of a different point of view. This makes our beliefs impervious to criticism, and they are perpetually reinforced.

Ask yourself: When and how did I form this belief? Another thing to do—seek to prove yourself wrong. Phrase Google searches with your opposing viewpoint, not your own.

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

For more in this series:

Post #1: The Slippery Slope
Post #2: The False Cause
Post #3: Ad Hominem
Post #4: Strawman
Post #5: Middle Ground
Post #6: Sunk Cost

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