Even the most altruistic and generous hearted can be seen lining their own pockets. Selection committees nominate familiar faces. Peers gain favour by promoting Peers. Conservative politicians are never brave enough to really close the economic gap between rich and poor. Why is this?
Why is our decision making so oriented to self promotion?
I venture that it is driven by our biases, and in particular confirmation bias.
You may agree that the past dictates the future. But this saying is more true than you would believe and very unlikely to change any time soon. Any judgment, act or decision you make is informed by your past experiences and beliefs; especially those beliefs forged in childhood, hardwired over years of example from your key influencers, such as parents, siblings, peers, teachers, etc. These beliefs are then reinforced over subsequent years of repetition by yourself. If you come from a family of chain smokers with longevity you will find it easy to ignore the Science about lung cancer. Based on your family history you are prepared to take the risk if it hasn’t struck in your family. Whereas the information on the cigarette packet should offer you choices, you are able to dismiss it without a thought, adding, “Look at Gran. She’s on 20 a day and how old is she? 80?”
Gran in this case acts as confirmation bias and she is very sticky as a truth you are prepared to defend. Once people have come to a conclusion on anything, anyone or any culture – due to past experience – they unconsciously search for evidence that upholds this belief, because such evidence makes their adherence to this truth safe for them. So we seek confirmation of what we believe to be true. We all do it, whether you call it heuristics, jumping to conclusions, rule of thumb or best guess. These are all biases by another name.
The reason confirmation bias is so prevalent is because it serves a purpose. It is necessary for survival and successful functioning in a super busy world.
Your brain is bombarded by 3000 branded messages a day (Source: ‘Data Smog’ by David Shenk),
…let alone what comes our way from everything else around us. In order to survive this volume of information and keep making quick decisions we use heuristics; short cuts to the truth. I once took part in It’s a Knockout. During a game involving a slippery pole and bucket of flour a teammate slipped and dislocated her ankle. I rushed over to St John’s Ambulance and grabbed someone in a uniform. “They will know what to do.” Sadly they were as useful as a chocolate teapot. My reaction to their uniform was driven by my confirmation bias, built up over many years of respect for authority. In the case the reality was very different. (This experience helped break my confirmation bias the next time I was faced with a teammate bleeding from a head wound at a hockey tournament.)
Confirmation bias is both good and bad; helpful and unhelpful.
So what can we do about unhelpful confirmation bias? Question your beliefs on a regular basis. Are they based on facts and Science or are they based on emotion? Are they yours or have you adopted them from someone else? If time allows, when faced with an important decision, take a deep breath, give yourself time to think and try to see all sides of the argument. Deliberate decisions made with a clear head are better than knee jerk reactions based on past truths.
But then came the bit that is relevant to business leaders, managers and coaches as well as poorly people. The practitioners behavior during consultation influences the success of the treatment; placebo or not. In 2008 the BMJ published the bar graph below. It shows the different levels of relief experienced by patients when advice was delivered in a dispassionate, ‘matter of fact’ way vs advice delivered with warmth.