Cognitive Biases—The Confirmation Bias

The confirmation bias refers to the tendency to favor information that reinforces our existing beliefs. As Andrew McVagh cleverly puts it in his post about the confirmation bias, “Did you know your brain is a yes-man, telling you only what you want to hear? He’s right, and we witness this bias in the current, highly polarized political climate.

Less often recognized, however, is the role confirmation bias plays in our personal and professional lives. A simple example makes the point. Imagine that you are outside working in the yard, enjoying the sun and a cool breeze. Suddenly, you hear your neighbor two doors down screaming at the top of his lungs. You peak over the hedge and see that he is screaming at his dog. Feeling that your peaceful afternoon is now ruined, you go inside to grab a cup of coffee and re-group.

Upon entering the house, you exclaim to your spouse: “That guy Joe is screaming at his dog. Who yells at a dog for no reason? I’ve always thought that guy is a jerk, and this proves it!”

What you fail to mention, however, is that Joe yelled because the dog dug up the tulip bulbs that Joe had spent two weeks planting. You are not lying or intentionally omitting this fact. Within minutes, you have, in effect, pushed this fact out of your mind. Why? Because, by remembering only the screaming you confirm your existing negative opinions about Joe.  In other words, one way that we display confirmation bias is by remembering selectively. Why? In order to align our memories with what we already believe to be true.

The reason for this selective memory is cognitive dissonance or the discomfort we experience when emotions and events do not align with our perceptions and existing worldview. When we feel this discomfort, we tend to re-shape the past in order to avoid this discomfort.

Remolding the past hinders our ability to accurately and thoroughly assess the present and make well informed decisions about our existing customer base, target markets, and how best to channel resources in order to reach and connect with customers.

The impact of confirmation bias is not limited to the past. It often affects our analysis as we consider various options prior to making a decision.

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