Are you seeing what you look for and hearing what you listen for?
If growth, success, healthy relationships, and prospering are at all your priority, then pay close attention to Grant’s pyramid below.
Today I'm talking about confirmation bias.
About awareness of our internal ‘yes-person’.
And the difficulty we all have in challenging our own beliefs.
Have you ever ordered food in a restaurant, and after telling the waiter your order he commented, “Good choice!”?
How did it make you feel?
Did you begin looking forward to your meal a little more, knowing that your choice was a ‘good’ one?
If yes, you are not alone.
This happens subconsciously, all the time, day after day – to everyone.
When making a choice, buying a product, taking a risk, making investments, or picking up stocks, people love to hear that their decision was a good one.
So much so, that they'll filter out and ignore information that directly conflicts with this belief.
It's due to a psychological phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias’, which is the same as an internal ‘yes-person’ echoing back a person’s beliefs.
It's called 'the mother of all misconceptions', and often leads us to making bad decisions, or holding on to them for too long.
Coined by psychologist Peter Wason in the 1960s, confirmation bias describes our tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and remember information that confirms our choices and beliefs.
It makes us pay attention to what supports our views and dismiss what doesn't.
And the more convinced we become about something, the more we will filter out and ignore all evidence to the contrary.
It feels much better to support our beliefs than it does to discredit them.
Evaluating and adjusting our worldview is difficult, scary, and uncomfortable so, we far prefer strengthening it instead.
For example, when you decide to buy something, you are open to information that confirms your purchase was high quality, healthy, or good value.
You want to believe you have made the right choice, so information and ideas that support belief are well-received and better remembered.
Everything that says you made a mistake, is rejected.
And that makes this bias insidious.
It affects every choice we make.
Every single day.
Things we choose to buy, who we choose to marry, our career, emotions, and finances.
We want to believe we've chosen the right bank, trusted the right adviser and made the best possible investments and choices, even if we haven't.
Worse, since this bias comes to us through the evolutionary process, it all happens in the background without us noticing.
One reason we suffer from confirmation bias is it protects our self-esteem.
No one likes feeling bad about themselves – and realising that a belief we valued is false can have this effect.
Deeply held views often form our identities, so disproving them can be deeply painful.
Other times, it can suggest that we lack intelligence.
As a result, we naturally look for information that supports, rather than disproves, our beliefs.
Social media and search engines that, by design, feed us opinions that reinforce those we already have, worsen the situation.
iPhones (or at least the software and clever marketeers on them) make you feel smart by feeding your opinions (again, to reinforce those you already have).
When I review costly and damaging mistakes made in investment, wealth creation and money markets – I always see plenty of evidence of confirmation bias.
Clear (often scientific) evidence is nearly always excluded because a person failed to question their beliefs and views.
Fighting against confirmation bias
So, how do you fight against confirmation bias to avoid making bad decisions while choosing a spouse, political candidates, investments, and everything else?
Psychologist Adam Grant recently tweeted a hierarchy of thinking styles.
A five-tier pyramid revealing how the vast majority of us process our day-to-day lives – and, consequently grow or stagnate.
The apex is what we should all strive for, especially those in business ever seeking to innovate and expand.
It's simple, really:
The best of all thinkers are able to say, "I might be wrong."
They welcome outside voices, opinions, perspectives.
They lean on evidence without dismissing emotional impact.
They're learners - they always want to know more.
That knowing is not just information gathering; it's learning new processes, new systems, entirely new ways of thinking.
The best thinkers are not afraid to overturn the proverbial apple cart and change their mind.
Seek out and understand information (particularly peer-reviewed, academic insights) that disagree with your existing beliefs – even if it's painful (this week I've been reading 'No Rules Rules - Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention' and this was indeed painful for me as a corporate leader).
This may involve talking to people who don't share your opinion and listening to their reasoning, rather than trying to argue your own point.
It could be as simple as reading some of these opposing views.
Don’t miss the opportunity to listen to valuable opinions, perspectives, and external information.
Regardless, it's important to evaluate the information as rationally as possible and avoid your impulse to explain why it's wrong.
You may still retain your initial opinion, but you'll know that you're making that decision based on facts and analysis, not thinking tainted by confirmation bias.
“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for!"
- Harper Lee
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
- Mark Twain