You came up with this brilliant startup idea and now you’re sure you want to become an entrepreneur. All of a sudden, you start seeing advice about startups popping up everywhere: your Facebook and Twitter feed, when you turned on the TV, and when someone mentioned it at that meeting. ‘This must be a sign! The universe is telling me that my startup will be a huge hit’ you think to yourself. Alas, you’ve fallen victim to the most prevalent cognitive bias – the confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. It lets you create your own pattern, your own structure, your own way of viewing the world.
What’s behind the prevalence of confirmation bias? Our love of patterns. Patterns give us a sense of direction and provide meaning to a world full of randomness. Also, patterns kept us alive in the past. They let humans know what time to plant, migrate, how to avoid dangers, etc.
However, this same ability makes it easy for us to fall prey to the fallacy of creating our own patterns when they do not exist or ignoring every other information that fails to adhere to the patterns we see. Anything that leads to a pattern encourages confirmation bias. It could be age, gender, language, choice of political party, religion, preference in technological device, etc. These all craft our experiences in unique ways, and when we encounter a new experience or information, we pick what conforms to our past experience and discard what opposes it.
New experiences are not the only thing vulnerable to confirmation bias – our old experiences also fall prey to it. So when we reminisce on old memories, we recall the things that support our beliefs and we forget the things that oppose them. If you miss your former partner, you remember the great times you shared, while you ignore the painful experiences you had. When you fight with your colleague, you remember all the times he/she was incompetent, but you forget when he/she came through on that project.
Every day, we come up different hypotheses of how the world should function, then we work to prove our assumptions right rather than prove them wrong. Eventually, these assumptions become our facts. This happens in so many areas, so let’s run through a couple of these aspects.
Confirmation bias lies at the heart of almost every and any argument a couple will have, with both sides arguing about the same incident, but seeing things differently. Apply this to any scenario where humans pick sides and you’ll have confirmation bias present. Take football for instance. Some will choose to see Messi’s performance in the Champions League as the reason he’s the best player, while some will choose to see the number of goals scored by Ronaldo as the reason he’s the best. Depending on what team you’re on, you’ll see that tackle against your player as a penalty and others won’t. Some might believe Manchester United is the best team in the English Premier League (which it is) and others might disagree.
Politics is another arena where confirmation bias thrives. Last week, Buhari’s response to a question on amnesty, bunkering and inclusive governance for the Niger Delta raised quite a bit of controversy with two sides split between the meaning of his response. Some found it exclusionary, while others saw it otherwise. As with every other president, there’s little agreement on Buhari’s effectiveness as a leader. When you see Buhari as incompetent, dull or sluggish, you’ll find evidence that agrees with your point of view. And if you see Buhari as calculated, deliberate and calm, that same information will be regarded as evidence that supports your view and if it isn’t, you’ll find something else that does.
The random-witch in-the-village-that-no-one-knows who is always blamed for anything and everything is a product of confirmation bias cultivated through years of superstition and Nollywood movies. Confirmation bias makes it a lot easier to blame something else for one’s predicaments than to engage in self-introspection.
Confirmation bias in business can be costly to investors who become overconfident in their decisions and ignore obvious evidence that their strategies will result in a loss. Also founders, executives, managers pay attention to a favourable, but inconsequential metric while ignoring the unfavourable, but important ones.
For example, Nestle discovered the danger of confirmation bias the hard way. The company announced in June that it was cutting 15 per cent of its workforce across 21 African countries because it says it overestimated the rise of the middle class, and that infrastructural issues attenuated growth. They ignored these rather glaring facts for Africa’s consumption-fuelled growth story, which has drawn a number of investors in search of a new, fast-growing market. Confirmation bias can be quite comforting when one chooses to ignore obvious weaknesses for comforting display of strength. However, it never makes these weaknesses go away.
Even professionals – scientists, economists, public policy makers – are not immune to this bias. A 2005 paper revealed strong evidence of confirmation bias amongst professional scientists. Also, French economist, Thomas Piketty, was accused of bending data to create results that fit into the hypothesis of his best-selling book ‘Capital in the 21st Century’. Policy makers/analysts desperate to see positive results are prone to the effect of confirmation bias. Foreigners who also approach development policy with their preconceived notions of what works often end up in failure – yes, World Bank, you’re an example.
Most professionals try to limit confirmation bias by considering information that goes against their hypothesis. Scientists use randomised trials with control and treatment groups to account for both sides. Entrepreneurs and policy makers conduct a SWOT analysis to ensure they’ve been fully circumspect about every aspect of their business or policy – both the good and the bad. Perhaps we can apply similar methods to our personal lives.
To counteract confirmation bias in our daily lives, we could actively seek evidence to refute the argument or the pattern we see. If you’re reading an opinion piece you find yourself nodding to, consider a counter to the writer’s opinion. Consider that the other side could be right. Surrounding yourself with a diverse group of people also helps because it exposes you to individuals with different viewpoints. Transforming this into a habit is arduous, but like all habits, continued practice is essential to seeing beyond what you choose to see, and instead seeing things as they are.