Confronting Confirmation Bias
Toward the end of The Ascent of Money, author Niall Ferguson delves into heuristics, a word that I think should mean “the statistics of vomiting,” but actually refers to mental, or cognitive, shortcuts. Humans have evolved heuristics as a way to think more efficiently, but heuristics present decision-making liabilities.
One heuristic is confirmation bias (or overconfidence bias), which is the tendency of people to look for evidence confirming what they already believe. We are only interested in the “truth” to the extent that it backs up our prejudices. We ignore what challenges us. If you’re a fan of Toyota cars, you’ll be likely to discount opinions and even facts indicating that, say, the Ford Focus is more fuel-efficient.
In his article “What Are Your Biases and Heuristics?”—published in MarketingProfs.com—Michael Perla cites studies showing that people usually overlook items in a newspaper that conflict with their beliefs. And the scariest thing is that they aren’t even aware of doing so.
Matthew May’s In Pursuit of Elegance devotes a section to Harvard University’s Chris Argyris and his work in this area, which he calls “mental models.” A mental model is a person’s world view—something he or she will go to great lengths to protect from contradictory information…and to protect themselves from possible embarrassment.
Doesn’t informing people help? Alas, educating is usually not enough; the confirmation bias is too strong. Smugly telling my very liberal—or very conservative—relatives that their beliefs are extreme will not elicit thanks. They will ignore me or get defensive, in part because of confirmation bias. I will get fewer Christmas gifts.
I believe dealing with confirmation bias requires a two-pronged approach.
First, as an individual in marketing or as an organization’s leader, you must fight confirmation bias. Here is the catch, grasshopper: you must genuinely believe in the argument you’re making. Confirmation bias is expert at ignoring lip service.
Second, don’t assume customers are objective. This means:
Do your customer research
Find out their confirmation biases. They may be at odds with your company’s assumptions. Believing that you have the best product or service, and having hard evidence to back up your opinion, may not actually resonate with customers. Their logic could very well be different than yours. Knowing whether they like or dislike your product is not enough. You also need to know why, and the reasons may surprise you.
Focus on fostering advocates, not just customers, for your business. Advocates’ confirmation biases are in your favor. Therefore, they are worth more to you, and are less likely to switch away from you.
Avoid “yes men”
Beware of any room filled with “yes men,” be it a focus group, a client, a partner, or anyone else in your company.
Use specialists wisely
By definition and by necessity, they have more narrow mindsets, and tend to see the world though a smaller lens. New thinking requires a diversity of opinions and information. Don’t be afraid to bring together specialists from different fields.
Get testimonials from people like the ones you want to reach. We all have a confirmation bias toward people like ourselves.
This twin approach is not easy. I’m the first to acknowledge that such objective thinking and leadership is all too rare. And I’m proud to say that all my employees wholeheartedly agree…and I won’t listen to anyone who tries to convince me otherwise.