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Again this week, I thank you for being here.
On a Monday morning, I set out to give a workshop at an Agile conference in Austria. To be honest, I’ve never liked getting up early, and I’m barely aware of my surroundings until I’ve been awake for a few hours. I do remember, however, that the plane was crowded and noisy. I was concentrating on the material for my presentation when I overheard someone talking about something that caught my attention.
Four people next to me were eagerly discussing human rights, Trump, and the situation in Europe. Each represented their own passionate and well-crafted point of view, based on information that seemed factual and solid. The conversation drifted to other parts of the world, such as North Korea and the United States, and then to the 9/11 conspiracy theory and the explosives allegedly planted by the U.S. government in the towers’ parking garages. Finally, someone concluded that mankind never reached the moon.
At first, the conversation thread seemed reasonable, but it became less and less reasonable. They took turns pointing out that there were no stars in Armstrong’s photos of the moon landing, that there could’ve been no waves on the flag because there’s no wind on the moon, that the astronauts’ shadows couldn’t be real… The more they presented their “scientific” evidence, the more the others contradicted.
Although I’m not particularly sociable in the morning, I decided to weigh in – before someone concludes that Walt Disney staged the moon landing, which would only lead to someone claiming that the filmmaker was being kept frozen in a top-secret base in the U.S. near Roswell…
"We must be careful not to believe things simply because we want them to be true. No one can fool you as easily as you can fool yourself!" Richard Feynman, Physicist
I offered what I believe to be irrefutable information: There’s a laser reflector (Laser Ranging Retroreflector or LRR) on the Moon that was installed by Apollo 11 during their mission. Its main purpose is to reflect back a laser launched from Earth to measure the distance between the two. I added that the reflector has been in operation for over four decades.
After listening to me, however, they were far from convinced and tried to refute my claim with dozens of new arguments. They continued with their rhetoric, adding that no one could’ve filmed Armstrong because the radiation would have melted the cameras and that the delay in communications was less than it should have been, given the technology of the time. How was it possible that logic didn’t prevail and that these people didn’t change their minds after hearing me?
This is the result of what we call Confirmation Bias. I define Confirmation Bias as the process of assembling a selective collection of evidence to confirm a position. Many employees or groups tend to favor information that confirms their preconceived notions or hypotheses, regardless of their accuracy.
Confirmation bias was initially demonstrated in the 1960s by Peter C. Wason, a cognitive psychologist at University College London
We see this all the time in companies: a team that doesn’t talk to the customer but makes decisions about what the customer might like or dislike about the product, or a product owner who creates multiple user-profiles and makes decisions without soliciting customer feedback in person (or only solicits it every few months). We also observe confirmation bias in discussions: Someone trying to lead others by pushing the idea that their process, framework, or anything else is better (e.g., Agile vs. Waterfall, SAFe vs. LeSS, LeSS vs Disciplined Agile, etc.).
As humans, we’ve a psychological need to create clear structures in our minds as we observe the world around us. At the same time, we try to confirm our existing beliefs in everything we see. In this way, we try to predict patterns and behaviors in others in order to decide how to act in the short and medium-term. But this mental process can be a trap if we’re not aware of it.
In my opinion, one of the most powerful tools any consultant or leader can have is to be aware of their confirmation bias.
How about posting in the comments what your favorite technique for overcoming confirmation bias is?
This month, we’re working hard to help the global community learn more about Enterprise Agility, new ways or perspectives on leadership, and new theories for human resources/people. That’s why we’re organizing several free events that will surprise you!