What is confirmation bias and how to overcome it?

Avoid cognitive bias in your interpretation of interview answers and data interpretation.
Avoid cognitive bias in your interpretation of interview answers and data interpretation.

Have you ever had a situation where you looked at some data and it confirmed what you thought? Or you were interviewing a candidate that belonged to the same sorority you belonged to and she was just as bright as you expected her to be? Or the millennial employee you have is just as spoiled as you expected them to be? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, you may be a victim of “confirmation bias.”

What is confirmation bias?

According to Wikipedia confirmation bias is:

“…is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning.”

Another way of looking at this is as Kendra Cherry wrote on the website VeryWell “A confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias that involves favoring information that confirms previously existing beliefs or biases.” We saw this type of cognitive bias in abundance in the Presidential election. It is not however just a big event phenomenon, it occurs on a daily basis, such as in interpreting data or in evaluating candidates for a job.

Analyzing data

An HBR Tip of the day stated that “we’re likely to pay more attention to findings that align with our beliefs and to ignore other facts and patterns in the data.” The tip suggests there are ways that you can avoid doing this by embracing information that is counter to your beliefs. They suggest you can do this by:

  • Specify in advance the data and analytical approaches on which you’ll base your decision. This will reduce the temptation to cherry-pick findings that agree with your prejudices.
  • Actively look for findings that disprove your beliefs. Ask yourself, “If my expectations are wrong, what pattern would I likely see in the data?” Enlist a skeptic to help you.
  • Treat your findings like predictions, and test them. If you uncover a correlation from which you think your organization can profit, use an experiment to validate that correlation.

HR situations

Interviewing is an area that is especially susceptible to cognitive biases. When I was trained in behavioral interviewing I was taught to do what the instructor Paul Green called “disconfirming.” That means if you found that you liked the candidate a great deal you needed to ask yourself “Why do I like this person so much? What should I dislike about them?” It is very similar to the second point made about data, you need to actively look for findings that disprove your beliefs.  For example with a candidate that is just really “wowing” you, sit back and determine if it is really their qualifications or is it because they went to the same school, or belonged to the same sorority, or their life modeled yours?
Having the ability to question your evaluations, or the evaluations of others, will help you overcome the cognitive error of confirmation bias. Having this insight into your own behavior will often make you the wisest one in the room

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