7 Deadly Assumptions #3: Confirmation Bias – Leadership Network Blog
“We don’t believe the world we see; we see the world we believe.”
In the blockbuster movie, The Matrix, there is a pivotal scene where the Judas figure, Cypher, betrays his cohort of rebels in favor of a more comfortable ‘reality’. If you haven’t seen the film, “the Matrix” is a virtual reality created by an advanced artificial intelligence. Machines that are a part of this system have usurped human dominion, plugging everyone into their giant network to keep them alive but in the dark. The virtual world is managed by “agents” who, because they are manifestations of the AI within the network, possess super-human abilities that make them virtually unstoppable ‘peace keepers’. In return for life in this artificial world, the energy of the billions of people plugged into the system provide the necessary power to keep everything running. A nice little symbiotic relationship.
Anyway, in this scene, Agent Smith, chief of all the agents, talks to the rebel, Cypher, over a nice steak dinner. Cypher admits that he is willing to betray his friends on the outside, in order to get a comfortable life inside the Matrix. Besides his request for wealth and fame, Cypher wants to remember nothing of the reality that exists on the outside, instead believing the ‘reality’ of the Matrix is the only truth there is. Cypher confirms the deal by saying:
“You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
[Savors a bite of steak]
Ignorance is bliss.”
What I Believe Is What I See…And That’s Reality
While our struggle with what is ‘reality’ doesn’t involve being unknowingly trapped in some virtual world created by a supercomputer gone wild (or does it…?), as leaders we must recognize that how we assess what is real, as well as what isn’t, is influenced largely by what we believe, whether or not our beliefs are accurate. We all want to see ourselves as objective, unbiased individuals. But we’re not. Just take a look at the social media banter surrounding recent events in Baltimore. The truth is all of us live our lives, day in and day out, according to our own mental models—internal pictures we’ve created of the world that shape how we react, respond, and make decisions.
The reality that we live and operate by our own models isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just ‘is’. At Leadership Network, there are two truths about models that we constantly remind leaders of who participate in our experiences:
- No model is perfect, some are useful.
- The hardest model to change is one that’s ‘working’.
The first truth reminds us, among other things, that we can learn something useful from models that are not our own. Our models aren’t perfect, and neither are others’. But if we look at outside models with a ‘learner’s mind’, we can find principles that can potentially improve the way we do what we do.
The second truth is held up, in part, by our next Deadly Assumption, often referred to as a ‘confirmation bias’. Our initial beliefs that lead to the development of our current models become truths that we continually seek to prove by filtering the data around us. Even if the data related to our current reality clearly points to a failing model, we ignore that data in favor of often anecdotal evidence that justifies our current course of action. As James B. Rieley explains in the Systems Thinking World Journal:
“What we already know becomes validated as our ‘truths’ through a process in which the beliefs we have cause us to continually look for data that supports our beliefs. This becomes a reinforcing dynamic; i.e. the stronger our beliefs, the more we look for supporting evidence that our beliefs are the right beliefs, which then makes them stronger, causing us to look…etc.”
How to Combat a Confirmation Bias
Unfortunately, just recognizing we have a confirmation bias doesn’t negate the issue. We must be intentional about guarding against this assumption as we engage in strategic thinking. Otherwise a great deal of energy and resources could be wasted as we plod along a pre-determined path of error. Here are a few ideas to consider:
Search for New Evidence. Often when we’re making strategic decisions, we focus most of our attention on evidence that supports our initial idea or model. Once we’re comfortable with the amount of evidence at hand, we stop searching. But before making a final decision, conduct another search. There are two ways you can approach this search:
- Look for evidence that is damaging to your current model. Work really hard to find facts that disprove the potential of your solution. You’ll either strengthen your resolve regarding this position, or uncover something that could lead to an even better decision.
- Look for evidence that supports divergent ideas and methodologies. If your primary model is multisite, before you decide to launch that next campus, try and show how you could have greater impact following a different path (such as planting or partnering). This could lead to new insights.
Take a Contrarian Point of View. This is very similar to the one above, with a bit of antagonism thrown in. During your next strategic conversation, assign a small group of your team members to uphold a contrarian view. Have them prepare to make a strong case for alternative solutions to your current approach, and see what insights the conversation yields, both about your current model as well as possible alternatives.
Follow the ‘Rule of Threes’. When you are trying to develop a solution for your next challenge, develop three alternative, and possibly divergent, prototypes. If you recall our first Deadly Assumption, Anchoring, you’ll remember that our initial ideas often overly-influence our future decisions, even though they’re usually not typically our best ideas. Part of the reason for this is that the first ideas we generate are strongly influenced by our internal models of reality. If we force ourselves to develop three equally plausible and impactful solutions, we’ll be more likely to identify and break free from unhealthy assumptions.
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