I was engaged in a political debate over social media the other day with an acquaintance of mine. Have you ever done something that you know is a complete waste of your valuable time, will accomplish no discernable good, and will almost certainly end with everyone right back where they started; only angrier? Such is debating social policy on social media. “Larry” had made a derogatory comment about one of the past U.S. presidents concerning how a particular industry was being treated in America. According to Larry, this president was a terrible leader because his policies “destroyed” this particular industry.
I knew that debating of whether a single president has the power to build or destroy any industry wouldn’t get far with Larry. When it comes to economics, cause and effect are nearly impossible to prove, much less agree upon. So I did something even more foolish, I introduced facts to the party. Admittedly, it can be arrogant to claim to have facts while accusing others of resting on opinions; but in this case, my facts were facts. They were flat-out statistics, not opinions about why the statistics existed or where they came from. In fact, the facts were so universally agreed upon by all sides of the debate, and on both sides of the aisle, that it has long been agreed upon that the statistics are valid. By everyone, except Larry.
After unloading both barrels of facts into the debate, I sat back, crossed my arms, and waited to Larry to grovel at the feet of truth. I didn’t expect to be metaphorically lifted on the shoulders of rectitude, but it would have been nice. Have you ever posted a response on social media and the other person took forever to reply? All sorts of thoughts go through your head. “I’ve got him now. He’s on the ropes and gasping for breath.” Or, “I bet he is surfing the internet to find a rebuttal statistic. Cheater!” Larry finally replied, “I trust my own eyes and ears more than I trust a bunch of Ph.D. bean counters.” I realized then what I should have known at the outset of the debate; Larry wasn’t interested in sparking a lively, thought-provoking conversation. He wanted to connect with people who hated that president as much as he did. I wasn’t playing the game Larry had set up. I replied with something weak, like “We’ll have to agree to disagree,” which translates into “You’re an idiot, but I’m tired of trying to convince you that you’re an idiot.”
What does all this have to do with business? A report was issued recently that suggested that one of the most damaging traps executives in America fall into is confirmation bias; the tendency to make a decision, and then ignore any evidence that might threaten that position. The Harvard Business Review published an experiment in which people were placed in one of two groups based on their opinions concerning capital punishment. Each member of the group was then given a report that contradicted their original position. The contradictions were not simply differing opinions; cold hard facts were presented to support the opposition. Regardless of any new evidence, almost no one changed their position.
Confirmation bias is not simply a stubborn quality built into humans. We all have a psychological tendency to decide what we want to do first, then figure out why we want to do it. Combine this with another psychological urge—to engage only with things we like—and you’ve got a powerful combination of forces affecting important decisions; decisions that are better left to facts rather than opinion. However, failures in business throughout history have been traced back to someone in the corner office “Knowing what I know, and no bean counter is going to tell me otherwise.” Attitudes like this always make me laugh. Frankly, if you’re going to hire a bean counter, shouldn’t you trust the count she comes up with? And, even though there are some people walking around with Ph.D.s who I wouldn’t trust to watch my dog, by and large, a person got a doctorate degree because he or she devoted years to learn more about one single subject than most people on the planet. Ph.D. holders really are kinda smart. Smart enough not to use words like “kinda.”
If you want to avoid confirmation bias, be sure to have someone on your team whose job it is to take opposing sides of a debate. The person has to have the power to disagree with you without fear of recrimination. Also, when talking about an important issue, be aware if you are asking questions that aren’t really questions at all, but simply veiled attempts at forcing agreement from others. Remember, we are all psychologically built to seek out things that we like, and supporting evidence feels good. Constantly remind yourself that what feels good in the short term could end up feeling terrible in the long run. Be disciplined enough to approach major decisions from both sides of the debate, and do as much work arguing with yourself and you do with others.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.