Would life be beautiful if you were always, right?
Imagine a world in which…
Everything you say is true.
Every idea you utter is immediately embraced by others.
Every joke you tell causes people to burst into tears of laughter.
Your wisdom seems to know and predict the future.
And you are the smartest (and funniest) person in the room. All the time.
Life is perfect.
But is it?
Is it the real life?
Is it exciting when you are exposed to your one-dimensional viewpoint of the world?
It is life without excitement and surprises. It is life without diverse colors.
It is life without growth.
It is a world where everyone looks like you and think like you.
It is boring.
And yet, we are drifting in that direction with an accelerated support from the latest technology. In the past, many of us experienced confirmation bias as they went through life encountering different opinions and ideas. The phenomena described by Peter Cathcart Wason, a cognitive psychologist at University College, London who pioneered the Psychology of Reasoning. Confirmation bias is the phenomena in which we view facts in the lenses of our convictions, hypothesis, and agendas. Instead of examining the facts independently, we subject them to our wishes and reinforcing our sense of comfort and belief of intelligence. This was us listening to our own voices and loving our own perspective in our individual echo chamber.
However, the phenomena received a major boost in the last decade from social media technologies seeking to absorb more of our time and ultimately serve it to advertisers. To do so they created the virtual social echo chamber in which we view and listen only to the opinions of likeminded people from around the world. What started as an individual experience have morphed into and strengthened by the voices of others just like me who reaffirm my opinions.
Living in a social echo chamber is stated as one of the dangers of today’s society. Social networks algorithms are targeting us with messages, stories and “news” that fit our pattern of past interest. In His book “The Listening Revolution” Yona Goodman describe is succinctly when he argues that in the world of social media, our attention is the commodity being traded by the social networks to advertisers. We are not the consumers, Goodman argues. Our attention is in fact the product sold. The most effective method to capture this commodity and deliver it to the interested parties, is to create a social echo chamber in which we no longer listen to opinions but upgrade our thoughts to absolute truths. This upgrade is achieved by surrounding us with similar and sometimes more extreme viewpoints of others and creating a sense that the real world is the world of those opinions who therefore are upgraded to be perceived as truth. The constant display of these truths does not leave room for any opposing thought to enter our realm unless for the purpose of direct opposition. We live in a world in which we feel that we are always right.
But this perceived truth is not actually the truth. We are crafting a limited and therefore distorted view of the world that fits what we like to hear and ignore other opinions. If in the past our confirmation bias was based on our own internal convictions, it is now amplified by living a community of like-minded people who refuse to accept different or dissenting opinions. They feel amazingly comfortable in their own confirmation.
Transforming the confirmation bias from an individual experience to a social experience magnified its affect and strengthen the resistance to listen to the facts independently and with open mind.
Some would argue that living in our own echo chamber is not hurting anyone. Well, think again. Even before the emergence of the deliberately designed social echo chamber, confirmation bias carried with it some serious risks.
Imagine your doctor half listening to your symptoms descriptions and while you did not even finish, concluding what is your condition and prescribing a medicine. The same one he prescribed to other patients with similar symptoms. BUT your condition was different than theirs. Your doctor, however, was counting on his experience in hundreds of similar cases that trumped listening to your specific case and treating it individually. What are the chances that this doctor has prescribed you with the wrong treatment?
A 2017 Mayo Clinic study found that only 12% of patients seeking a second opinion were diagnosed correctly by their primary care physician. The doctors offering the second opinion reported that 80% of the patients who searched for a second opinion ended up with a new diagnosis. I have no doubt that the first doctors were trying their best. But there is a good chance that some of them fell into the confirmation bias trap and delivered a diagnosis that fit their past patterned experienced than one that fit the case in front of them. Research on the impact of confirmation bias in courthouses demonstrated that judges and jurors may fall into the same trap and will view defendants with a biased perspective based on their past convictions.
Confirmation bias, individual or social, is limiting our ability to author the real story. Often driven by agenda such as wanting to sound intelligent, refusing to change previous decisions, selecting the easy path forward and avoiding challenging work to name a few will lead us to viewing the facts with a listening lens that does not reflect the true nature of these facts and the opportunities or threats that they possess.
May be. I do not know, let’s examine the facts
At a course I took at Wharton executive program, the above sentence was the common response of Professor Kevin Kaiser. Despite decades of experience, the one truth he was convinced of is that he is not sure. His approach forced him to follow a diligent disciplined methodology to examine the facts and then draw conclusions. While I do not remember many of the concepts taught off hand, this built-in doubt in any statement or number was the real gift I took from the course. To overcome the confirmation bias, we ought to adapt a deliberate and active approach to questioning what otherwise will be presented to us as truths. The listening lenses of agenda powered by the confirmation bias will lead us to making some serious mistakes and reaching vastly different conclusions. Awareness is the first step towards combating this rather engrained listening lenses. Even if you are pursuing an agenda, make sure you are aware of the high likelihood that you will approach facts with a distorted confirmation bias.
A fast-growing US insurance company challenged me with creating an innovation optimization model. The problem we were addressing was an innovation ideas overflow. The company did not have the resources to pursue all the ideas presented by employees. To address that I developed a model that operationalize their vision, mission, and results targets. Together a 10-dimension decision optimization model was developed. To evaluate the model, we conducted workshops with executives where they were asked to evaluate different pending innovation ideas considering the new model. They then needed to decide which innovation request to assign resources to and which one to let go. The interesting insight for this workshop was that when applying the 10 dimensions decision model to those ideas, some of the ardent cheerleaders of those ideas abandoned them. They recognized that their enthusiasm for a certain idea was based on one or two dimensions but when examined in its entirety, the idea was not that good. They were actually incredibly surprised to see how poorly some of their beloved ideas scored.
Following the awareness step, you ought to design a simple decision criterion that will force you to evaluate the facts with an open mind. To enhance the experience, make sure to explore opposing ideas and facts just to make sure that you are seeing the full picture of opportunities and possibilities.
A confirmation bias is a natural outcome of our human experience. We love our success. We get attached to our viewpoints. We defend our opinions. All this passion about ourselves is human. But we ought to be careful not to transform every opinion of ours into truths. Our evaluation of opportunities and threats should be equally balanced and not influenced by our past fears or our glorified aspirations. Our experience is always valuable in selecting a path forward but not in assessing the facts. We need to distinguish between the two. The story of our life should be authentic to the facts we are facing. It is the best way to make the most out of the opportunities and remove our biggest fears.