The Art Of Marketing and eCommerce Series

Logical Fallacies In Online Business Part 7: Confirmation Bias

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. – Aldous Huxley

The human mind holds a limitless ability to convince itself of anything. Worse still is that others are entirely able to convince us of anything as well, for good or bad. This influence is even more powerful when the recipient wants to hear the falsities they’re being told, when they’re more willing to believe things that might not otherwise agree with their logic or reason. As you may well know or can imagine, this can cause disastrous consequences and is an extremely common mental trap to fall into.

This mental trap, or logical fallacy, is known as the Confirmation Bias, and it is one of the strongest influencers we encounter on a daily basis in regards to committing logical fallacies. This bias, simply put, is our tendency to interpret new information so that it becomes compatible with our existing theories, beliefs, and convictions.

For example, if you believe that people are inherently good, you will likely see on a daily basis people performing good and decent acts, mainly because  you were looking for them. That, in your eyes, would be confirming evidence. Conversely, if you believe people are inherently evil, you will likely see people being nefarious and wicked on a daily basis because you were looking for them as well. Now imagine for a moment that you actually believed most people were inherently Bad to the Bone, however upon inspection you couldn’t find a single George Thorogood.  How could you continue to believe something you couldn’t find proof for? Without other influencing factors, such as Social Proof, Illusionary Perspectives, Clustering Illusions, or even this idea of the Confirmation Bias, you wouldn’t be able to force your perspective on reality. The end result would have to be changing your beliefs and views to what is known to be true, as the only alternative is to remain, as well as to be considered, insane (in a state of mind that prevents normal perception).

This trap is all the more problematic for people in positions of power such as managers, directors, owners, and so on. The reason being simply that they are fed a lot of information about business and personal performances on a dat-to-day basis. The amount of information that passes in front of them, and which they are expected to absorb, is staggering. As such, it’s easier, as well as expected, for them to quickly take in what their employees, assistants, and subordinates are telling them with little to no question about it. They simply don’t have the time to cross check facts. They must assume for the sake of brevity that what they are told is accurate and factual. They must have faith in their co-workers. Now trust is an important factor to any successful business, however that trust comes with an implicit cost associated with it. The cost being that what you’re being told is perhaps not entirely accurate, factual, or realistic and if it’s not… there could be drastic negative consequences to using that information.

There is a good quote from Albert Speer which touches on this subject: “There is a special trap for every holder of power, whether the director of a company, the head of a state, or the ruler of a dictatorship. His favor is so desirable to his subordinates that they will sue for it by every means possible. Servility becomes endemic among his entourage, who compete among themselves in their show of devotion. This in turn exercises a sway upon the ruler, who becomes corrupted in his turn.”

In short this quote is saying that your employees want to look good in your eyes, and will try very hard to accomplish that, regardless of the means. They will attempt to impress you, slander and undermine coworkers to make themselves look better, and even lie to you in order to gain your favor. They will tell you everything is ok when all hell’s breaking loose so as not to upset you. I imagine they could call these “white lies” or that they were “omitting truths”, but half-truths are whole lies, and as a good leader in any role will understand, without accurate information very little can be expected to be done well.

What Can We Do To Combat The Influence Of The Confirmation Bias

Fire Your “Yes” Men”

We’ve all known, worked with, or been annoyed by a “Yes Man”. A Yes Man is an employee who cannot help but say positive things regardless of the situation. They rarely speak up about what they know to be true and always attempt to keep the peace and not disturb the peace. In essence, they are afraid of speaking honestly and sharing their opinions while automatically saying “Yes” to everything without much thought.

When considered, this type of employee ought to be terrifying if they have any position of power, authority, or influence on your business. In the Speer quote above mentioning, “servility becomes endemic”,  a Yes Man is literally the plague bringer. As managers we need to be told the brutal, ugly, and whole truth. Any skewing or omitting of facts only limits and hinders our abilities in the future to make good informed decisions. If you notice any Yes Men in your workforce, you would do well to either help them get through and over it to change their ways, or find a more suitable replacement.

Don’t Kill Your Messengers

We all know the pain of being the bearer of bad news, however these messengers are the exact opposite of Yes Men. They are honest, frank, and upfront. If a problem exists they are the first to bring it to attention. If a problem persists, they will keep attention on it until it is resolved. Now typically if the news is bad, the messenger can end up taking the heat especially if the bad news is due to a fault of their own.  However, wouldn’t you rather have employees who make mistakes and own up to them? Wouldn’t you rather have employees who speak frankly and say what needs to be said? Wouldn’t you rather have employees who may speak up against you if they feel they have a valid point? You did after all hire your staff based on their experience and capabilities, why cut that short by not taking their expert advice and recommendations?

Furthermore, why become upset with the only true watch dogs your business may have? They didn’t try to hide their failures, or blame them on someone else. Nor did they avoid saying something because it would be upsetting. That honesty, and confidence, has a higher value than many people may realize or give weight to. These people are actively fighting against the confirmation bias, though they may not be aware of it. It could be argued they are some of the most valuable employees you may have simply because you can trust what they are saying.

If you don’t want to be fed wrong or inaccurate information, or you don’t want problems to be hidden from you, be sure not to fire or become upset by your company’s messengers of bad news. They often times are both the front  and last line of defense for spotting problems in your business. They are a bastion to ward off not only Confirmation Biases, but many other problems as well. If anything, these folks should be rewarded.

A final note to this point is overall, if you want to be told the whole truth as a business leader from your subordinates, they have to feel comfortable expressing anything to you. This means that you also have to be approachable, affable, amiable, essentially… you have to allow yourself the ability to be talked to. Don’t  frighten your employees, become visually upset, be disrespectful, play favoritism, point blame or anything else that might make your employees not want to approach you when a problem arises. There are certain Traits That Make A Good Leader, and tact happens to be one of them. Make yourself both available and approachable, even more than you feel to be doing so now, and you’ll likely receive more accurate feedback about business operations from your employees. All you have to do then is appreciate their input and you will have created a healthy setting for open and honest dialogue.

Beware of the Internet

The Internet is a spawning pool for the confirmation Bias. If you care to convince yourself or others of anything, there is guaranteed to be information online backing up your beliefs, regardless of how wrong or erroneous they are. We tend to frequent blogs, web pages, and social sites that already align with what we enjoy and believe. We seek out communities of like-minded people, but that doesn’t mean communities of right thinking people.

Prior to the Internet, if you believed something weird or off the wall, you would likely have a hard time finding a like-minded individual to share your ideas with and collaborate. Nowadays however, you can find a forum, video, or discussion on just about any topic, and it would appear that there are many people who agree with you. The hard part here is that despite any amount of popularity on a subject, regardless of the Social Proof available, the greater the number of people that believe something doesn’t make that thing more true. Facts are not created based on popularity contests, but from evidence, and it’s the evidence that is often contorted or entirely wrong.

Not only may information be completely wrong, it could be old and outdated. The latter is more elusive because at the time it was published, it may have been sound advice, and little in the forums may speak to the topical nature of it. This becomes all the more problematic when what you’re reading aligns with ideas you may already have, reinforcing a wrong thought, and allowing the Confirmation Bias to fully take over. When you’re forming any business strategy, and are finding ideas online and referencing “experts” in any field, be sure to try and find anything that contradicts what is being said. Actively seek to disprove what you’re reading if it is important enough. This may seem pretty intuitive, but when what you’re referencing is reinforcing your beliefs… it’s difficult to remind yourself to question it’s accuracy.

For example… in Online Marketing it has long stood that to increase your rankings you need to increase the number of inbound links pointing to your site. Now if you’re reading older materials, they are still saying the same things we believe today; find, generate, and manage your link portfolio. However, link building tactics change over time as search engine algorithm’s are updated. Where the number of links and exact hyperlink text focusing on keyword usage used to be an important factor, now it’s the  quality of the link and their relevance to your site that has the biggest influence (Of course a greater number of quality links is still better than fewer). But this seemingly minor difference actually plays an enormous role and if you’re practicing old strategies of bulk en-mass link building, not watching your link profile, or caring where the links come from, well you’re going to have a very rude awakening. It’s bad enough wasting time and energy link building poor quality links, wait till you’re penalized by them and have to attempt to take as many of them down as possible. All I have to say is it’s easier to avoid poor link building than it is to correct it. May you never have to experience that… honestly. The horror.

Find Faults Not Confirmation

This is likely to be the most useful action you can take to combat the influence of the Confirmation Bias. Rather than looking for praise, accolades, and high-fives from associates, you should be asking for criticisms, corrections, and mistakes noticed. Ask for people to find the faults in your ideas, theories, and beliefs. Don’t ask for people to confirm what you already believe to be true. Sure… having confirmation may feel good for a short while. But in the long run it’s only going to cause problems as the real issues are left unchanged, or worse yet unnoticed.

Let’s say there is a company meeting about the performance of a new project coming up that has been running for a few months now. This project was heavily invested into, the creation of which took a lot of man power and time to complete. The project’s creators and managers have had high expectations and believed as whole it was going to be a shining success. Now during the performance meeting you can expect to hear everything positive that has occurred. You can be sure nothing noteworthy will be left out as they attempt to prove why and how it has been successful. After all, the project was invested into, and the project leaders are expected to show some form of a return on that investment. Now I imagine as the reader, you’ve likely seen this scenario many times. During these meetings have you ever noticed how more positive points are mentioned over negative ones? Furthermore, how the negative points always seem to be skimmed over or are made to appear insignificant? Nothing new, no matter how well planned it is, can be created perfectly. There are always problems to be fixed, areas that can be optimized, and improvements to be made that make positive differences. In fact, these are the important points to cover and focus on.

Going over what has worked is great. Give yourself a pat on the back, grab your gold star and go sit back down. The real work to be done is making what you currently have better and the only way to do that is to find what is not working and correcting it. This means focusing on failure, finding faults and not further confirmation that what you have works. The idea behind this is simple, you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes. The reason this is useful is because it’s far more difficult to make something great even greater while turning something bad into something good is often much easier and more profitable. In the end, we all deserve recognition when we do good work. As owners, managers and overall leaders, it is our job to not overlook success, but continually strive to find the faults that still exist within it. As there are always improvements to be made you would be wise to not be convinced otherwise.