You have the impression that your new colleague doesn’t really like you. You can’t pinpoint exactly why though because you don’t know him very well. You send him an email requesting that he sign off on a project and his reply is impersonal, to-the-point and bordering on cold. Your suspicions are confirmed and you now dislike him as well.
As humans we like to be able to explain the world around us so that we can understand the present and make predictions about the future. For example, understanding someone’s personality allows us to understand why they behave as they do and make a prediction about how they are likely to behave in future. We have a remarkable ability to collate and analyse lots of information to come to these conclusions, but, like any processing system, we take shortcuts and this can lead to mistakes. One common shortcut we all take is called confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to pay attention to information that confirms what you think you already know and to ignore information that disconfirms it. Say, for example, you believe the stereotype that all older people are grumpy. Instead of rationally assessing the personalities of everyone you know you are more likely to immediately bring to mind the one grumpy older man that you met in a shop last year, and not remember the five non-grumpy older men that you met on the same day. Your attention and memory will be immediately drawn to information that confirms your prejudice. What’s more, every time your prejudice is confirmed in this way, the stronger it will become.
This tendency to succumb to confirmation bias can cause problems in social, personal and work situations. It can be particularly problematic in a corporate environment where perceptions of a brand or product can determine whether it succeeds or fails. If there is a (mistaken or otherwise) public perception that a product is unreliable or somehow faulty it can be incredibly difficult to change that perception because confirmation bias means that those times when the product or brand was faulty will be much more easily remembered than the times when it was reliable.
While changing perceptions can be difficult it can be done. One recent study found that providing people with opposing arguments caused their views to be more moderated and less prone to confirmation bias . The real take-home message here is to learn to check your own confirmation bias before jumping to conclusions too readily. If you are pretty confident in your perception of something or someone don’t look for evidence to prove your theory, look for evidence to disprove it. Only by looking at what doesn’t fit the picture, as well as what does, will you fully understand your world and the people in it. Does your colleague really not like you? Or is that based on your initial misinterpretation, a series of ambiguous situations and a healthy dose of confirmation bias?
- Schwind, C., Buder, J., Cress, U., & Hesse, F. W. (2012). Preference-inconsistent recommendations: An effective approach for reducing confirmation bias and stimulating divergent thinking? Computers & Education, 58(2), 787-796.