Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 46;   November 16, 2011: I've Been Right All Along

I've Been Right All Along


As people, we're very good at forming and holding beliefs and opinions despite nagging doubts. These doubts lead us to search for confirmation of our beliefs, and to reject information that might conflict with our beliefs. Often, this process causes us to persist in believing nonsense. How can we tell when this is happening?
A glass of red wine

A glass of red wine. In a fascinating study of the effects of marketing cues on the assessment of product quality, researchers conducted a blind wine tasting of three samples under laboratory conditions. The subjects were told only the prices of the wines. Without the subjects' knowledge, one sample was offered twice, once with a low price and once with a high price. All subjects consistently preferred the one they thought was more expensive. To study brain activity, the experiment was conducted using functional magnetic resonance imaging of the subjects' brains. Brain activity indicated that subjects actually experienced enhanced pleasantness when they believed they were consuming more expensive wine. See "Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness," by Hilke Plassmann, John O'Doherty, Baba Shiv, and Antonio Rangel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 22, 2008, vol. 105, no. 3, pp. 1050-1054.

When groups make decisions about complex issues, and when complete information isn't available, they do the best they can. Sometimes they believe they're doing the best they can, but they're mistaken in that belief. One pattern that leads groups (and individuals) astray is known as confirmation bias — the tendency to search for or interpret information so as to confirm one's preconceptions.

We make decisions based in part on prevailing beliefs — what we hold to be true about the matter at hand. Confirmation bias distorts our decision-making in three ways. It limits our access to information, it causes us to undervalue information that contradicts prevailing beliefs, and it causes us to overvalue information that confirms prevailing beliefs. Confirmation bias tends to degrade decision quality.

Oddly, even the most educated, intelligent, and accomplished among us are vulnerable to confirmation bias. Here are three indicators that a group discussion might be distorted by confirmation bias.

Anecdotal evidence
As a group debates the validity of a hypothesis, advocates might offer an anecdote — a narrative about a specific incident — to confirm their position. Anecdotes, even if true, cannot prove anything. They can only disprove, and to do that, they must be true.
Anecdotes can serve only two purposes. They can be illustrations of a hypothesis, or they can disprove a hypothesis. And numbers make no difference. A million anecdotes consistent with a hypothesis do not outweigh one anecdote that provides a counterexample.
Eerie correlations of unlikely conditions
Some believeConfirmation bias tends to
degrade decision quality
that hypotheses can be proven by patterns of unlikely events or conditions. Most noticeable when used by conspiracy theorists, this line of pseudo-reasoning is very common, though less noticed, in more mundane discussions as well. For instance, it might be used in product development, as a group speculates about the possible motives or next moves of a competitor, based on a series of hires the competitor recently made.
A humorous example of this kind of thinking is the probably apocryphal quote often attributed to the late actor Paul Newman: "24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence? I think not."
Evidence consisting of failure to disprove
Failure to disprove a hypothesis doesn't, in itself, constitute proof of the hypothesis — it simply leaves the hypothesis standing. Some feel that if fifteen attempts to disprove fail, and only two succeed, then the odds are good that the hypothesis is true.
Not so. If an attempt to disprove the hypothesis does succeed, then the hypothesis is disproved. There's wiggle room only if the various attempts to disprove are each suggestive, but inconclusive.

Next time we'll examine some of the effects of confirmation bias on thought processes. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenCWNlHOXDmjekgqvzner@ChacYwEtjxNqcyNJezbgoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Elevator doors at the Spalding Building, Portland, Oregon (2012)Demanding Forgiveness
Working together under stress, we do sometimes hurt each other. Delivering apologies is a skill critical to repairing those hurts and maintaining our relationships.
Circular reasoningBegging the Question
Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
The USS Doyle as DMS-34, when she played The CaineReverse Micromanagement
Micromanagement is too familiar to too many of us. Less familiar is inappropriate interference in the reverse direction — in the work of our supervisors or even higher in the chain. Disciplinary action isn't always helpful, especially when some of the causes of reverse micromanagement are organizational.
Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting at the South PoleOne Cost of Split Assignments
Sometimes management practices have unintended consequences. To reduce costs, we keep staff ranks thin, but that leads to split assignments for those with rare skills. Here's one way split assignments can lead to higher costs.
A Carrick MatChanging Blaming Cultures
Culture change in organizations is always challenging, but changing a blaming culture presents special difficulties. Here are three reasons why.

See also Emotions at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A tangle of cordageComing March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
A Mustang GT illegally occupying two parking spaces at Vaughan Mills Mall, OntarioAnd on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmAfBhGiiaWpjuTYfner@ChacrWywQgEiiglHhQTBoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.