Updated: May 31, 2018
It’s Friday morning and you’re getting ready for work. You turn on the TV to your favorite news station, ABC. Sitting down at the table, you peruse the ABC Times. As you drive to the office, you switch on the radio to ABC. While pouring a cup of coffee at work twenty minutes later, your colleague asks you about some current events. You know she listens to XYZ news. Immediately, your blood starts to boil. You’re going to defend what you saw, read and heard on ABC news at all costs! And if you’re unable to attack her position, you attack HER!
Does this scenario sound familiar? It illustrates a common phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a tendency to justify our preexisting beliefs. When we come across information that conflicts with our current views, we are biased toward shutting it out. Moreover, we are mentally motivated to collect data and information that supports our viewpoints and beliefs. We have difficulty acknowledging the validity of different perspectives and viewpoints. Yes, confirming our beliefs is rather effortless on our part. Researchers suggest that once we have developed an opinion about something, we often have a tough time processing additional information in an unbiased way. In many ways, our brain finds it easier to rationalize than to be rational.
There are multiple explanations why people are vulnerable to this confirmation or my-side bias. One reason is that it’s an efficient way to quickly process new information. We are flooded with information at an astonishing rate, and at some point, our brain makes a choice about what we process and how much time we spend processing it. Recall, we have lazy brains. Another reason is that are brain prefers certainty. By giving equal or more weight to arguments that go against our beliefs or decisions, it can create a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity. Finally, we have a need for “internal consistency.” That is, it’s hard for us to hold conflicting beliefs simultaneously. Much easier to dump the belief I don’t like.
The ability (and willingness) to challenge an existing idea or belief is very powerful for for operating in a world with myriad viewpoints and lots of “gray area” issues. In the workplace, confirmation bias can attenuate our ability to be creative and innovative. It can also be dangerous for forward-thinking organizations striving for inclusion. It can lead to stagnation, conflicts, risky decision-making, improper hiring or promotions, and miscommunication. To cultivate an inclusive work environment, keep in mind that different people with different sets of experiences will have different viewpoints. And that’s a good thing when it come to problem solving. But it’s only a good thing if we practice curiosity and keep an open mind about people and ideas that might differ from our own. Acknowledge that you are susceptible to confirmation bias and challenge yourself to entertain different viewpoints, without having to accept them. By the way, that’s what Aristotle suggested is the the practice of a wise person.
Remember, be less certain and be more curious!