On confirmation bias.

confirmation bias | kourtney thomas

Are you familiar with the concept of confirmation bias? Basically, this is when we have an idea or an opinion and we automatically seek out people or systems or articles on the internet to support our ideas and opinions.

It’s a natural human response. Pretty simple – we have egos, we have belief systems that align with them, we create things we believe in, and then we want to believe everything we believe is true and have proof of it, so we seek that specific supporting proof.

(Side note: Carl Richards has done a really nice series on confirmation bias in the last few weeks, especially in regard to investing.)

Confirmation bias is the reason we have a few friends or mentors we speed dial every time we want to make sure we’re making a good decision. Not even just friends or mentors – friends or mentors we know are going to agree with us and encourage us. Even if they give us constructive feedback, we know they’re ultimately going to give us the support we’re craving.

I know I do this. But I also think I may have a little different perspective about it.

Most people, most things you read, portray confirmation bias to be a bad thing all the time. A negative, limiting thing that doesn’t allow you to grow and expand your worldview, understand new perspectives. I agree that, when always used in this way, yeah, cherry picking stuff to support your truth can be damaging. It’s part of what keeps people, and entire societies and cultures (ahem, a lot of our current ones) stuck, fixed, maybe even regressing. Also, it can just lead to some really bad decisions.

Believe me, I often surround myself with like-minded folks. But, I also go out of my way to surround myself with more folks who are very different from me to challenge my bias, my worldview, my opinions and perspectives. It’s uncomfortable at times, but in the last few years, this has enhanced the quality of my life in spades. So, I often look at how I sometimes use confirmation bias with a discerning eye and strategic bent, which I believe can result in a positive spin. Hear me out!

As an example, I recently met with a social media and marketing strategist. It was a random introduction and we didn’t know much about each other going into the meeting. She had no idea of my struggles with social media, my resistance to launches, or my previous efforts at marketing. I knew a bit about her business, but really only what I was able to observe on her Instagram page, and her vague list of services on her website.

We met for nearly three hours. (Three hours! When’s the last time you had a three-hour business meeting that actually ended up productively or positively?) In the course of that three hours, I learned all about her business and professional evolution, as well as her personal story. I learned more about her client approach and her passions. And then, I told her all about where I had come from, where I wanted to go, and how I’ve struggled with bridging that gap. I told her about the techniques I had tried, my frustrations, my wins, and yes, what I do and don’t like and want for both myself and my business.

She managed to take all of that, analyze it, and say, “Hmmm. OK. I get it. Here’s what we can do.” She took her expertise, including a bunch of research and stats, and applied it to my unique situation, which ended up then resulting in a recommendation to basically keep doing what works for me, with some other specifics and strategy.

Essentially, she confirmed my bias about social media marketing, and I had not sought her out for anything of the sort. In fact, I had pursued the meeting with her specifically to get out of my box, to see where I could improve with an unbiased, expert opinion. Guess what? Exactly that found me, looking a whole lot like my existing ideas. Interesting.

I use this in other ways too. For instance, I have a couple of friends who run on a lot of systems. I don’t like systems. I’m pretty anti-system, actually. However, I understand their importance, so I continue to stay abreast of what could be useful, or where trends are going in my field. Sometimes, when I’m brainstorming ideas or processes, I indeed consider how systems may benefit what I’m trying to achieve.

I reach out to my systems friends. I tell them what I’m thinking. And I can tell you with a laugh that time and time again, these friends confirm my bias against systems by evaluating the situation and the goal and saying, “Meh, I don’t think it’s the best fit. You can try this, and if you do, here’s what I’d suggest. But really, I think what you’re already doing is going to work great for your needs.”

Again, the people I’m seeking out specifically for their different perspectives and expertise end up confirming my bias. Unexpected, every time. Like, what? This is your thing and you’re telling me I shouldn’t do it?!? But still a benefit.

Sure, there are times when confirmation bias shows up in the traditional sense. Again, it’s a fairly natural human behavior. I talk to people I know are going to agree with and support me, and I execute an idea with either great success or miserable failure due to my own established views and behaviors, right or wrong (or somewhere in the gray).

More and more often, though, I may reach out in these ways and get totally different, and ultimately, better, results, which is what I’m after.

It may mean changing my mind about something that I was super rigid on previously – which feels weird, but I actually really like. It may mean doing something I’ve never done before – which is sometimes terrifying, but usually great. It may mean trying and failing. It may lead to backtracking. It may also lead to opportunities I hadn’t even thought of. It may lead to better success than expected, or a more refined and meaningful version of success. It may mean trusting my gut, which leads to more confidence, and positive improvement and energy.

I’ve talked about intuition before, and I’m coming to believe this is intertwined, based on that last point. I want to cultivate my intuition, and sometimes, confirmation bias (again, with a discerning eye) is a way to do that. I have to be careful that it doesn’t lead me down one path without considering alternates, to my detriment. Every time I do it on purpose, I evaluate the outcome. Every time it happens naturally, I look back and see what was at play. I don’t go into it blindly, but with as much awareness as possible.

I always have a choice to see through only my lens, or add other lenses too.

I also have the choice in how, when, where, and with whom to do that. (Why should be an obvious choice – growth.) Then, I have a choice in how to interpret the information and feedback I receive, expected or not. You have the same available choices.

I’m sure it could be argued that this entire post is biased, but hey, you know I like to argue, and I like to do it different. I’m not saying you should always sit smugly in finding ways to defend your existing beliefs and ideas. But I’m also not saying you should always be after ways to shoot them down. It’s about living somewhere in the space of being open to both trusting that you have a strong set of beliefs and you know what you’re talking about, but also knowing that we’re human and evolving and changing, and that’s just as worthy of trust and value too.


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