Be(A)ware Of Your Confirmation Bias
June 11, 2021
It was dark, and the streets seemed confusing. Google Maps was utterly stumped. It kept taking me to the wrong address. I was running late for my meeting with a CEO of a large enterprise, and I was not comfortable calling the CEO for directions. What if he thought I was not organized enough to figure out the address much before the meeting. I was desperate.
I got into a service road, parked my car, and got out to ask a gentleman walking on the kerb if he knew the address I was looking for. This person started giving me some directions, but I sensed that he was not sure. I quickly excused myself and buttonholed another smartly dressed gentleman walking past me and asked him if he knew the address. As luck would have it, this gentleman was aware of the place, and I was thrilled. He confidently gave me directions to get to the place. I made a note of his guidance and started driving to the place.
Unfortunately, the directions this second person gave me sent me on a wild goose chase. The actual location was nowhere near where this person directed me. It was a few miles off the mark. Left with no choice, I called the CEO, who was gracious enough to point me out to the correct location. I eventually reached my destination, an hour late.
This memory reminds me of the perils of confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor information that confirms our existing beliefs and ignores any evidence that contradicts them.
We live in a world that values confidence over competence and reminds us to value the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.
“Anyone who is not confident is not competent. Anyone who looks and talks with confidence is very competent. If someone doesn’t show conviction, we cannot trust that person to do any job properly”. This is a common belief many of us have.
Maybe the first stranger was pointing me to the correct location. But I was unwilling to trust him just because I felt he seemed unsure, even though he gave me specific directions.
I trusted the second stranger to give me the right directions just because he seemed confident and dressed like a corporate executive. “If he can give me the directions with such conviction and confidence, he must be aware of the place” is what my subconscious interpretation of this stranger must have been.
Not for a moment did I pause to check if the directions he gave me were right.
This sort of cognitive confirmation bias shows up in many aspects of our daily life.
- I like a politician just because he speaks glibly and appears erudite and wise. Is the person really wise, honest? No one knows, but our conviction is unwavering in the comfort of our flawed belief.
- “People who are intelligent and competent can communicate their ideas nicely. This person seems to be struggling with his communication skills- it means he is not smart”. Our confirmation bias is very quick in coming to conclusions.
- Your friend tells you of this fantastic new investment opportunity he put money into three months back and has already made a 10% return. You think your friend to be smarter than you are. If he has made money, it means it must be a good investment. You trust the word of your friend more than the actual underlying performance of the stock.
The next time you feel absolutely sure about some matter, just ask yourself, “am I possibly under the influence of confirmation bias?”