You came up with this brilliant startup idea and now you’re sure you want to become an entrepreneur. All of a sudden, you start seeing advice about startups popping up everywhere: your Facebook and Twitter feed, when you turn on the TV – everywhere. ‘This must be a sign! The universe is telling me that my startup will be a huge hit’ you think to yourself. Alas, you’ve fallen victim to the most prevalent cognitive bias – the confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. It lets you create your own pattern, your own structure, your own way of viewing the world.
What’s behind the prevalence of confirmation bias? Our love of patterns. Patterns give us a sense of direction and provide meaning to a world full of randomness. Also, patterns kept us alive in the past. They let humans know what time to plant, migrate, how to avoid dangers, etc.
However, this same ability makes it easy for us to fall prey to the fallacy of creating our own patterns when they do not exist or ignoring every other information that fails to adhere to the patterns we see. Anything that leads to a pattern encourages confirmation bias. It could be age, gender, language, choice of political party, religion, preference in technological devices, etc. These all craft our experiences in unique ways, and when we encounter a new experience or information, we pick what conforms to our past experience and discard what opposes it.
Every day, we come up with different hypotheses of how the world should function, then we work to prove our assumptions right rather than prove them wrong. Eventually, these assumptions become our facts. This happens in so many areas, so let’s run through a couple of these aspects.
Confirmation bias lies at the heart of almost every and any argument a couple will have, with both sides arguing about the same incident, but seeing things differently. Apply this to any scenario where humans pick sides and you’ll have confirmation bias present. Take football for instance. Some will choose to see Messi’s performance as the reason he’s the best player, while some will see the number of goals scored by Ronaldo as the reason he’s the best.
Politics is another arena where confirmation bias thrives. As with every other president, there’s little agreement on Buhari’s effectiveness as a leader. When you see Buhari as incompetent, dull or sluggish, you’ll find evidence that agrees with your point of view.
And if you see Buhari as calculated, deliberate and calm, that same information will be regarded as evidence that supports your view and if it isn’t, you’ll find something else that does.
The random-witch in-the-village-that-no-one-knows who is always blamed for anything and everything is a product of confirmation bias cultivated through years of superstition and Nollywood movies. Confirmation bias makes it a lot easier to blame something else for one’s predicaments than to engage in self-introspection.
Confirmation bias in business can be costly to investors who become overconfident in their decisions and ignore obvious evidence that their strategies will result in a loss. Also founders, executives, managers pay attention to a favourable, but inconsequential metric while ignoring the unfavourable, but important ones.
Confirmation bias can be quite comforting when one chooses to ignore obvious weaknesses for a comforting display of strength. However, it never makes these weaknesses go away.
To counteract confirmation bias in our daily lives, we could actively seek evidence to refute the argument or the pattern we see. Surrounding yourself with a diverse group of people also helps because it exposes you to individuals with different viewpoints. Transforming this into a habit is arduous, but like all habits, continued practice is essential to seeing beyond what you choose to see, and instead seeing things as they are.
Chuba Ezeks is an Economist and Designer. He is the co-founder of Akanka and Future Africa.