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Confirmation bias - Governance Connect

Confirmation bias

Conformation bias 315x275Some things are remarkable and for most leaders and managers hidden or simply unnoticed. One of them is confirmation bias. Within science it is described, researched and elaborated over and over again. This – my own experience was very helpful to come to this conclusion –  steering mechanism is relatively unknown though under practitioners. At least they seem not (fully) aware of this human built-in ‘adjustment from an anchor’. I share some of my discoveries.

Generally spoken we, humans, have some ’embedded heuristics’ which as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky stated, are ‘highly economical and usually effective, but lead to systematic and predictable errors’. Here are some facts to be aware off, when you chair a meeting or advise the governing, steering or elected council of your organisation.

Richard Stanley Crutchfield discovered that 1/3 of the people ignored what they saw and went with the consensus. People within a research experiment (and this has been done over and over again) agreed all to a certain question when they were not exposed to the answers of others. But when they heard that everyone of there group disagreed (before they gave there judgment), 31 to 37 per cent said they did not agree!

Solomon Asch (Gardner, 2009) also concluded later in new experiments,  that “overall, people conformed to an obviously false group consensus one-third of the time”. In line what Crutchfield discovered earlier. Gardner concludes :“We are social animals and what others think matters deeply to us… we want to agree with the group” and “it certainly is disturbing to see people set aside what they clearly know to be true and say what they know to be false.”

From the evolutionary perspective there the human tendency to conform is not so strange. We are gregarious after all. It is the survival perspective to best to follow the herd. Gardner: “We also remain social animals who care about what other people think. And if we aren’t sure whether we should worry about a certain risk, it matters where other people are worried about seem to make a huge difference.”

The other way around though is that also government is sensitive for anchoring. Governments anchor on popular opinions. It influences the way they respond. And this mechanism could be at the basis of the rising populistic wave on which political parties surf their campaigns and public leaders base their decisions. Reading the news and following the political debates it becomes clear that scientists have found and described realistic and  fundamental mechanisms of  us, human beings.

Cas Sunstein (Gardner, 2009) elaborated the consequence of this mechanism on individual level, when information is coming in. He concluded that belief causes confirmation bias, and therefor in-coming information is screened thoroughly. If it supports the own conviction the incoming information is readily accepted. If not, it is ignored, scrutinized carefully or flatly rejected. Isn’t this recognisable in the debates we share and attend. And isn’t this a mechanism we recognise in ourselves.

Being aware of this, as Kahneman and Tversky stated, could contribute to improved public governance: “understanding of these heuristics and of the biases to which they lead could improve judgements and decisions in situations of uncertainty’. For me is knowing that 1/3 of the people in a meeting could have an interesting view – which is not shared due to conformation bias (or possible group consensus, which actually can develop in every meeting –  a true eye opener. And a personal conviction to the find a way to get the best out of each meeting by creating a open mind setting and safety within the group. It can and may not be that precious knowledge, enriching experiences or clear views are getting lost in the melee of the groups dynamic. So, creating space for each individual in the battle of the group process is crucial. It is a challenging task. More than that, a renaissance for the individual.


Bibliography & Artography

Gardner, Dan, 2009, Risk: The Science and Politic of Fear. Virgin Books, London, 422 pp.

Kahneman, Daniel & Amos Tversky, 1974, Jugdment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, Volume 185, pp. 1124-1131

Sunstein, C.R., 2005, Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle Principle. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Picture: Louise G.S. Kruf ©