Reaction To Comey’s Testimony Shows Confirmation Bias

06/11/2017 12:05 am ET Updated Jun 13, 2017

In my last post, I talked about confirmation bias where people look for and believe information that supports their pre-conceived beliefs and ignore whatever contradicts them. This is very apparent in the way viewers have reacted to James Comey’s testimony before Congress last Thursday. Trump supporters claim it exonerates the President at the same time they ignore Comey’s mostly disparaging comments about Donald Trump. They fail to see the logical inconsistency. Trump’s detractors, looking at the same testimony, draw opposite conclusions. Supporters and detractors listen to news commentators that support their beliefs and dismiss all others. Why? For better or worse, confirmation bias is one way human brains deal with complexity and adversity. It is easier to blame others – those that don’t agree with you – for your problems. It is also appealing for some to believe that one person will solve these problems – especially when that person repeatedly tells you he will.

Beyond politics

Unfortunately, confirmation bias is not limited to politics. Buyers of products do the same thing. Before purchasing, they search for reviews to help them decide which products to buy and from which companies to buy them. Because most are too busy or lazy to investigate themselves, the reviews provide a sense of validation and comfort. After buying, they look for information that confirms they made the right choice and ignores information to the contrary. They want to convince themselves that they made a smart decision even though they may have made a mistake.

Why is confirmation bias a problem?

By seeking information that confirms what you already think, you may be making the wrong decision. If that decision is one that has serious consequences such as causing you to undergo an unnecessary life-threatening operation or support a candidate that jeopardizes the public good, it could be a very costly mistake. If it involves decisions with more minor consequences such as finding the right restaurant or movie, the penalty is not that big for making the wrong decision. Even so, some people put more effort into selecting the right movie or restaurant than they do investigating doctors or political candidates before making their final decisions. This is not only true in the US. It happens throughout the world.

Avoiding confirmation bias

To avoid confirmation bias and serious consequences that could result, there are at least three things you should consider.

  1. Try to assess the magnitude of the consequences if you make the wrong decision.
  2. Look for information from at least three independent, 3rd-party sources, and make sure that at least one of them does not agree with your preconceived belief.
  3. Make sure your sources do not financially benefit from their recommendations.

The idea is to recognize that your mind sometimes lies to you because it has biases whether you like to admit that or not. To be correct more often than not, you have to go outside of your head and find information that is unfiltered and unbiased.

The lesson for decision makers

It is very easy in a business for top executives to fall in love with their own ideas. To avoid getting into serious trouble, it is important to seek out different points of view and devise objective criteria for evaluating the alternatives. This will help to insure you are making the right decision based on the unvarnished truth.

The good news

Time will tell who is telling the truth regarding the investigation into ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russian officials. The good news is the Justice Department appointed Robert S. Mueller as special counsel. By all accounts from people of all political persuasions, he is the right choice. That should help to mitigate confirmation bias in this particular case.

In your business, you need to find your own independent, unbiased sources. Best of luck.

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