How to Combat Confirmation Bias

As analytical professionals, we are people people. We do our work because we care about people. We want to help them make the best decisions they can.

To help people, we need to understand people. And people have cognitive biases.

In a series of posts, we will explore these biases and how to overcome them.

First up – confirmation bias.

People see what they want to, usually. They tend to accept evidence that supports what they already think is true, and reject evidence that goes against it.

As analysts, we are after the truth. So, we fight confirmation bias.

But not head on. Because we will likely lose.

Let’s take an example.

You just worked hard to get some numbers that unfortunately tell you that the marketing department is doing a perfectly wretched job. No positive growth. Negative ROI. Terrible lead quality. They need to know! So you go to the marketing director and you say “if you keep doing what you are doing, you are going to burn down this entire company and sink the ship to the bottom of the Marianas trench.”

They will fight you and tell you your data is wrong and your analysis is wrong and you will lose the war and then the company will burn down.

A better option: Get some confirmation bias on your side before you try to fly in the face of everything the marketing director holds dear. “Hello marketing director, I was looking at some numbers on one of our campaigns and I’d like to go over it with you.”

Marketing Director has less confirmation bias about how well a single campaign did than he or she does about how the entire department is doing. If you carefully show them the analysis, they just might believe you. And now you’ve planted a new, smaller bias in their minds – a bias that tells them, subtly, if one campaign didn’t do so well, maybe marketing isn’t as incredible as we thought.

Take as many small steps as you need. Rally some bias to you side (which if you did your work right, is the true side). And when they have enough bias in favor of the truth, lay it all on the table.

Doesn’t work every time. But it works much better than kicking in the door.