By Saleh Karsou and Mohammed Karsou
As a soccer coach for the past 20 years, Saleh Karsou has learnt a lot whilst working with children. One of the most important learning experiences for him was the concept of confirmation bias. For example, a previous coach for the team he was coaching had already alerted him regarding a particular player who he described as “a troublemaker”. While coaching this new team, if Saleh observed the slightest “troublemaker” behavior from this child, he was quick to note it as confirmation of his own biases that were fueled by what the previous coach had warned him. Even if the other children were behaving in a certain way similar or worse than this particular player, he noticed that his focus was more on this specific child. Therefore, he looked to confirm what he believed was true based on the previous coach’s claims.
What is Confirmation Bias?
Confirmation bias, also known in many literatures as “myside bias”, is a term used to describe bias that is based on pre-existing thoughts or beliefs. If someone has a belief, whether it is based on information conveyed to them or through their own customary research, they will always look for evidence that supports their beliefs.
There are three types of confirmation bias: biased search for information, biased interpretation of information, and biased memory recall. The first is when bias is used while observing and investigating. The second type of confirmation bias in the way information is interpreted based on beliefs. The third is having a biased memory that also fits their beliefs.
There are many effects of confirmation bias. One impact of confirmation bias is that it makes individuals more hesitant to engage with information that disagrees with and challenges their set of beliefs. Another consequence is that it influences how information is recalled and interpreted. It can even go as far as to affect decision-making at the workplace. A person may make decisions based on flawed evidence or research solely because it lines up with their prior beliefs whilst ignoring anything that disagrees with these beliefs, leading to bad decision making.
There is, however, a solution to confirmation bias. One must be able to acknowledge different viewpoints and beliefs. This does not necessarily mean they have to change their beliefs, but instead to be able to see other perspectives. This may be difficult for some but there are many ways to tackle it. For example, gathering and exploring information that is outside their set of adamant beliefs. Lengthy research may be needed depending on the topic; however, this will help the evaluator understand other perspectives more thoroughly, thus leading to potentially accepting these perspectives.
Confirmation Bias in Organizational Assessments
As an operational excellence assessor, Saleh and Mohammed remarked that “one can fall into the mind traps associated with confirmation bias”. Assessors review multiple documents, and interview employees at different levels of the organization with the intent to gauge the department performance in key focus areas such as cost and profitability and reliability. Assessors are also process driven and the assessment team is composed of safety and environmental team members which adds a dimension of compliance to the assessment outcome.
Both Saleh and Mohammad recommended some pointers to avoid certain pitfalls associated with confirmation bias during the assessment of organizations:
- Fact-based-decisions: Ask for evidence and establish a clear and well-defined line of activities; a timeline of activities is key.
- Keep an open mind: If you come across one aspect that is ‘bad’, that does not mean everything else (you have not seen) is bad. Similarly, if one aspect is good does not mean that everything else is good. Let data drive the decisions on organization performance. It is important however to sensibly appreciate good efforts.
- No unnecessary boxing of employees: Employees’ level of education (even their presentation skills) or level in the organization hierarchy, or even personal appearance can easily bias the assessor’s opinion and assessment outcome. Keep in mind that all employees contribute to the organization’s goals and that you are assessing the process, not employees.
- Stick to process steps and requirements: Process steps can be considered as the contract between the assessor and the assessed organization; staying on topic is key to removing personal biases or confirming such biases.
On the management front, Saleh and Mohammed expressed that confirmation bias can be detrimental for employee’s evaluation and career planning and had the following tips for leaders:
- Use the check-in approach: As a supervisor or manager, it is healthy to provide frequent and timely feedback to employees. It is not recommended to postpone discussion to mid-year or end-of-year evaluation. The check-in approach will allow the employee to explain his/her reasoning on why certain decisions were made, thus assisting the supervisor/manager to correct certain perceptions resulting from confirmation bias. Timely discussions will enable employees to see how they are perceived.
- Data and results: In the workplace let the data drive the decisions and focus on the employee’s results. It is important to consider what data is not telling managers (not only from the perspective of what the data is telling them). This requires critical thinking as certain constrains are removed that are relevant to the employee’s performance.
- Hear them out: As a leader, providing a safe zone in the workplace is key in minimizing mind traps associated with confirmation bias. A safe zone allows employees to speak freely and discuss work-related and certain personal issues attributing to some of the behaviors.
About the authors
Saleh Karsou is the operational excellence engineer at Saudi Aramco. Mohammed Karsou is in his first year of college, majoring in biology, at the Three Rivers Community College in Connecticut in the USA. He is a writer and sociology student and assisted Saleh with the research and the production of the article.