There’s been a lot written about cognitive biases in the last decade. If you walk into the Psychology section of Barnes of Noble today or browse Amazon for “decision-making,” you’re sure to see a library of books on how irrational humans can be.

These human flaws, or biases, are fun to learn about—it can be amusing and informative for us to discover things about the way we may operate. In my opinion, most cognitive biases really stem from three core human distortions—a trio of errors that can befall even the smartest of fellows. This trio extends to all reaches of the globe and can afflict all individuals and businesses alike. In this series of posts, I’ll address this trio and what managers and employees can do about them.

So—what is the first of these three major biases?

Confirmation Bias

Anyone who has ever been in a decision-making meeting knows this bias well. Confirmation bias is the human tendency to search for, favor, and use information that confirms one’s pre-existing views on a certain topic. It goes by other names as well: cherry-picking, my-side bias, or just insisting on doing whatever it takes to win an argument. We all know someone like this. 

Confirmation bias is dangerous for many reasons, but most notably because it leads to flawed decision-making. Imagine a business considering launching a new product. The head of the company has the best idea for the “next big thing” so he directs his team to conduct market research to explore its feasibility. The team then conducts surveys, focus groups, and competitive analyses with this in mind.

I hope you see how there is confirmation bias all over this scenario. First, the company head is using market research as a sham to confirm his preconceived beliefs about a product idea. He’s not letting data do the talking at all. Next, the team is launching into the product development process knowing what their boss wants. As a result, the questions they craft for their research will likely be biased to give him the answers that he wants. While this is a hypothetical scenario, it’s all too common for companies to do this today.

How can you, as a business leader, combat confirmation bias? Taking a page out of a statistics textbook may actually be helpful. When gathering data, it’s always important to remember that the question you ask and your method of measurement will have a big impact on your results. When conducting a survey, for example, what you get depends upon what questions you ask. And what questions you ask depends upon what answer you want to get. Make sure to try to craft unbiased survey questions and have an objective third party vet your survey before releasing it. For example, instead of asking, “Do you think x is a good idea for a product? Would you be interested?” you might ask consumers to rank features of products in the form of a conjoint analysis to discover their preferences.

Another option would be to appoint someone on your team to play the role of a “devil’s advocate” when a big decision needs to be made. A devil’s advocate is someone who takes a position they don’t necessarily agree with for the sake of debate. Does your company create dissent in its decision-making process?

Confirmation bias is also the culprit behind many regrettable hiring decisions. Think about a traditional hiring process. HR or a hiring manager typically sits down with a candidate and asks them to sell themselves to the company. If they like the candidate, they might even give them a softball question about weaknesses for them to knock out of the park, just to assure themselves they are going with the right person. If all goes well, they then proceed to ask the person trying to get the job to provide their own references. How much negative or even neutral information do you think is revealed about the candidate in this process? Probably little to none. For many companies, the whole process is nothing more than a series of confirmatory checkboxes on the way to hiring the wrong person. And the result? Employee turnover and big headaches.

A better way would be to structure the interview process completely around disconfirming evidence. "Why aren’t you the person for this job?" "What did you hate about your last job?" Ask references for contact information of other employees that the individual worked with. They are much more likely to provide an objective perspective on their work.

Confirmation bias is extremely difficult to overcome, in both our personal and professional lives. Humans don’t like to be wrong and we will search for any evidence to prove the path we are pursuing is right. But, through some of the strategies above, you as a manager can stir up debate and ask some of the tough questions necessary to become a more rational, and successful, organization.

To learn more about confirmation bias, check out THIS article from Scientific American.

Look out for the second bias that befalls many organizations, coming soon.

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Patrick Healy

About the Author

Pat is a member of the HBX Course Delivery Team and currently works on the Economics for Managers course for the Credential of Readiness (CORe) program. He is also currently working to design courses in Management and Negotiations for the HBX platform. Pat holds a B.A. in Economics and Government from Dartmouth College. In his free time he enjoys playing tennis and strumming the guitar.