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How to Avoid Psychological (Confirmation) Bias in Decision-Making

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Confirmation bias is one of the psychological biases that lead us to believe the wrong things, misunderstand others, and make bad decisions.

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Learn and overcome psychology bias types to make better decisions. (Image source: Envato Elements)

If you want to become a critical thinker, then it pays to understand psychological biases and how to minimize them. In this article, you'll learn what confirmation bias is and why you should avoid it. You'll also learn practical ways to overcome confirmation bias by taking on different roles as a journalist, a lawyer, and a scientist.

What Is Confirmation Bias and Why Is It a Problem?

Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek, favor, and remember information that supports our pre-existing beliefs. At the same time, confirmation bias leads us to reject alternative points of view—even before we’ve given them proper consideration.

All human beings are prone to confirmation bias and other psychological biases. It’s a shortcut our brains take so that we can make decisions quickly. As author David McRaney wrote in You Are Not So Smart, it’s a misconception that “you are a rational, logical being who sees the world as it really is.”

But that doesn’t mean we should accept and tolerate confirmation bias.

As Evan Davis, English economist and journalist, says in Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It:

“When confronted with a new proposition we don’t start thinking about it with a blank sheet in front of us; instead, we place the proposition somewhere in relation to our pre-existing structure of beliefs and attitudes. This makes life much easier, because we can reduce even a complicated judgement to a simple binary one – does it conform to my existing views or not?”

Confirmation bias is a problem because it causes us to hold on to wrong ideas. For example, it can make you vulnerable to believing fake news. If misleading or inaccurate information is presented as news and it’s close to your existing beliefs, then confirmation bias will make you accept that information unquestioningly.

Confirmation bias can also lead to miscommunication. If you automatically reject views that are different from your own, then interactions with others will break down. This can, in turn, cause conflict.

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Confirmation bias and other cognitive biases get in the way of effective communication. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Another possible consequence of confirmation bias is making bad decisions. A decision is “bad” when it’s based on the wrong or insufficient facts. Harvard Business Review calls this plain laziness: “a failure to check facts, to take the initiative, to confirm assumptions, or to gather additional input.” It's one of the nine habits that lead to terrible decisions.

Decision-making biases can make you see only one set of facts and ignore others. This can lead you to make the wrong decision. So, a bad decision can cause projects to fail. This is why overcoming confirmation bias is essential in the success of any enterprise.

“Leaders need to correct for cognitive biases the way a sharpshooter corrects for wind velocity or a yachtsman corrects for the tide.” ― Paul Gibbons in The Science of Successful Organizational Change: How Leaders Set Strategy, Change Behavior, and Create an Agile Culture

There are three types of confirmation bias: 

  1. Biased search for information. You seek only data and facts that support what you already believe to be true. You don’t actively look for information that opposes your beliefs.
  2. Biased interpretation of information. You may come across information that contradicts your beliefs, but you interpret them as being inaccurate, misleading, or downright lies.
  3. Biased memory recall of information. You see contradictory information, but you conveniently forget them.

Remember these three forms of confirmation bias as you go about identifying and overcoming your own psychological biases.

How to Avoid Confirmation Bias

You’ve seen that confirmation bias and other types of cognitive bias have many negative consequences, both in your personal and professional lives. Fortunately, you can avoid confirmation bias. It may not always be easy, but it's possible. Below are seven steps to minimize confirmation bias:

1. Accept That You Can Be Wrong

“If there's something you really want to believe, that's what you should question the most.”― Penn Jillette

The first step is to embrace the fact that you’re not always right, that you can be wrong. This can be the hardest step. We all want to be correct all the time. And our self-esteem can be tied to being smart. Remind yourself that nobody’s perfect. Even the most intelligent human beings make mistakes.

2. Be Open to Other Views

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Listening to views that don't agree with your own helps you become a more critical thinker. (Image source: Envato Elements)

The next step is to be open to other views. You don’t have to change your mind. Just be willing to listen and consider other people’s ideas. It might help to pretend that you’re a journalist, and you need to get different points of view, while remaining neutral, unbiased, and nonpartisan.

3. Conduct a Thought Experiment: “How Would You Defend the Opposite View?”

Pretend you’re a lawyer for the “other” side. Your job is to defend their views. In other words, you must look for evidence that contradicts your beliefs. Actively seek research, data, and resources that support the opposite view.

4. Interpret the Data Impartially

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Interpreting data objectively is another step to overcome decision-making biases. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Earlier, you were a journalist and then a lawyer. Now it’s time to put on your scientist hat. Scientists conduct experiments and then interpret the results impartially. That means setting aside their beliefs and expectations and allowing the data to either support or disprove their hypotheses.

Do the same with the information you found in Step 4. Later in this article, we’ll cover how to analyze data in more detail.

5. Record and Review Your Findings to Help You Remember

If you recall, one kind of confirmation bias makes us remember only information that supports our existing beliefs. You can prevent this from happening by making sure you document what you find in your research, as well as the insights you glean from them. You can put these together in a PowerPoint slide deck.

6. Compare the Data You Find With Data That Supports Your Original Beliefs

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Compare information from opposing viewpoints. (Image source: Envato Elements)

By now you've taken steps to find, interpret, and remember information that negates your existing beliefs. It’s time to compare that with information that does support your original beliefs. You may have to do more research, this time, in support of your views.

With as much neutrality and objectivity as you can muster, compare the two sets of information.

7. Test Your Conclusions

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Run your conclusions by trusted people who'll tell you if they think you're wrong. (Image source: Envato Elements)

After comparing information that supports different beliefs, you’ll come to a conclusion. You either stick to your original views, or you realize you were wrong and adopt a new conviction. That new belief could even be that you don’t know enough to draw a conclusion!

“If I'm serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it's okay to reserve judgement until the evidence is in.”― Carl Sagan

Either way, the process isn’t over yet. If you really want to be thorough in thinking through the issue, then consider testing your conclusion with a few trusted people. Choose a friendly—someone who you know will be honest with you and will tell you if they think you’re wrong. (Even in your choice of someone to bounce ideas with, confirmation bias can creep in!)

What Is an Example of a Confirmation Bias?

Confirmation bias occurs in different areas of our life. To help you better recognize decision-making biases such as confirmation bias, below are a few examples in personal life and in work life or business:

Examples of Confirmation Bias in Personal Life 

Someone who doesn’t want to give up meat Googles “benefits of paleo diet” or “benefits of carnivore diet” but not "benefits of plant-based diet."

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Psychological biases affect decisions from what we eat to which candidate to hire. (Image source: Envato Elements)

A vegan sees a headline about food poisoning from a restaurant chain’s salad bar. They scroll through without reading the news report.

The weather forecast has a 60% chance of rain. A person who hates to bring an umbrella thinks, “Oh it’s probably not going to rain.”

Someone with low self-esteem sees two people sitting together, whispering, and thinks, “I bet they’re saying bad things about me.”

After a political debate, you remember only the points raised by the candidate you’re going to vote for.

Examples of Confirmation Bias in Business

An interviewer is biased against millennials. The questions they ask during a job interview are skewed to reinforce their beliefs that millennials are arrogant and entitled.

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Job interviews can be fraught with psychological biases. (Image source: Envato Elements)

When assessing a vendor they like, an employee ignores negative reviews posted online. “Those are just trolls and shouldn’t be taken seriously,” they say.

A manager believes one of his staff members is ineffective. When said staff member requests time off, the manager thinks that’s proof that the employee is a slacker, even though they haven’t used up all their vacation days.

A project hits 97% of its OKR (objectives and key results). One senior leader says, “This project failed,” while another says, “This project pretty much achieved its goal.”

Employee A and Employee B are best friends. At a retrospective evaluation of a project that Employee A managed, Employee B remembers only the positive aspects of the project. They forget the areas where things could’ve gone better.

How to Interpret Data Objectively

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You can avoid decision-making biases by interpreting data objectively. (Image source: Envato Elements)

The problem with data is that it's got to be interpreted. And the insights one gleans from data can be subjected to confirmation bias as well. It’s like the glass half-empty vs half-full scenario. People believe what they want to believe. And people can derive two contradicting conclusions from the exact same data.

“Identical information can lead to opposite conclusions based on relative perceptions of its receivers.” ― Naved Abdali

To interpret data more objectively, try the following.

  • Recognize your biases and assumptions. Know your own confirmation bias, so you can guard against it.
  • Examine the data carefully. Ask yourself: “Is the evidence robust?”Does it come from a credible and unbiased source?” “Have the data been reviewed for accuracy?”
  • Beware of the common statistical mistakes. These could include small sample sizes, not having a control group, and inferring a causal relationship when the data only suggests an association. The National Library of Medicine has compiled 10 common statistical mistakes to watch out for when reading scientific literature.
  • See how a different perspective might change how you interpret the data. Change the lens with which you view data, and you just might see a whole new world.
  • Accept the possibility of uncertainty. Research doesn’t always deliver absolute truths, and data doesn’t always resolve uncertainties. Embrace this and learn to be comfortable with it.
  • Go for logic. When information doesn’t settle uncertainty, the final test may be logic. Which view makes more sense? Which is based on sound reasoning?

With practice, you'll get better at interpreting data. This is an essential skill to avoid various types of cognitive bias.

Communicate With a Professional Presentation

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Package your thought process into a compelling presentation for your own benefit or to share with others. (Image source: Envato Elements)

One lesser-known form of cognitive bias is the tendency to only remember information that supports your existing beliefs. To help you record and remember information from different perspectives, you may decide to create a PowerPoint presentation. This will also come in handy should you choose to share your findings with others.

Explore Envato Elements

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Create professional slide decks with presentation templates from Envato Elements.

To make a compelling presentation, use a professionally designed PowerPoint template, such as those available at Envato Elements. With an Elements subscription, you've got unlimited downloads of presentation templates as well as photos, icons, fonts, and other creative assets—for one low monthly price. 

You'll have everything you need to make your presentation memorable. Many PowerPoint templates from Elements come with built-in tables and charts to present data visually.  

Succeed By Being a Critical Thinker

We live in an age when it’s so easy for us to access any information. You can get research and data with a quick use of a search engine, voice search, or hashtag search on your favorite social media platform. 

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Overcome your psychological biases and have more confidence in your decisions. (Image source: Envato Elements)

That's why today, it’s how you think—not how much you know—that'll help you succeed. If you think critically, then you’ll be able to use the knowledge you've got to communicate better, make better decisions, and live better.

Critical thinkers recognize their own psychological biases and take steps to overcome them. You now know how to avoid confirmation bias. If you follow the steps and tips you learned in this article, then you’ll strengthen your critical thinking skills and minimize confirmation bias. 

And when it comes to communicating your analysis and conclusions, use the creative tools from Elements. They'll help you create materials that stand out and make maximum impact. By packaging your research and insights in a visually compelling way, then you’ll help others become critical thinkers, too. 

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