Although I have written many times about different kinds of biases, the one I find most common, even in my decision making, is his confirmation bias. An article I recently came across, Confirmation Bias: Why You Make Terrible Life Decision by Nir Eyal, confirmed to me what I suspected, confirmation bias is more pervasive than most people realize. Confirmation bias is where people pick out anecdotes or facts that support their belief, while neglecting conflicting evidence.
I see if often in the games industry, you want to add a new feature (say a chat system) and you point to three products with chat systems that are highly successful. You do not look at the ten products with chat systems that have failed. Maybe you are looking to build a new product and you want to license an expensive IP. You justify it by pointing to the revenue that Kim Kardashian’s game generating while not including in your calculation the 20 branded games that failed.
This problem is not limited to the game industry. You may believe that social democracy is the best path forward for a country and you use Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands to confirm your belief, while not noticing Cuba, Greece and Spain. Or you believe free markets are the answer and confirm this by looking at Singapore, Taiwan and the US while not noticing Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. Sometimes people knowingly pick the cases that prove their point, however, confirmation bias is when they sub-consciously accept the evidence that supports their beliefs.
Data is not the panacea
Using data rather than emotions appears as a vaccine against confirmation bias but data can contribute to the problem. Analysts suffer from the same biases as other people and will often look at the data that confirms their hypothesis.
You may have launched a new product that has a strong LTV and is growing rapidly, surpassing your existing product. One analyst who belongs to the team that launched the new product might look at the retention and monetization metrics and compare them with the original product. These KPIs are higher in the new product so the analyst recommends marketing funds shift from the older product to the new product. An analyst on the team for the existing product might identify that shows that total revenue (new plus old product) is flat since the launch of the new product, despite additional marketing spend on the new product. They might argue that the new product is simply cannibalizing the existing product. The better KPIs of the new product are a result of the best users moving to the flashy new toy, not a fundamentally better product.
Depending on the analyst’s initial partiality, they will either investigate and then present the first or second data set. Neither data is incorrect but the conclusion and actions they lead to are very different. Even though both analysts are being honest and believe they are objective, confirmation bias is driving their analysis.
Confirmation bias can impact career decisions
Confirmation bias is not only prevalent in deciding what decisions to make in business but also how to manage your career. You might feel your company is not treating you fairly. Then when two colleagues get large bonuses and you do not, it confirms that you are being treated unfairly. The data you may not be considering is that you are on a higher compensation level already or had received a bonus six months ago.
You also may be considering moving to a competitor. You have met people at a trade show from the other company and they mentioned some of the great perks. You interview and are then offered a position. Before accepting, you see some negative reviews on Glassdoor. You have already decided that you want the new job so you convince yourself the reviews have to be from a different business unit or boss. When you get to the new job, you learn the problems are real.
How do you fight confirmation bias
Given the prevalence of confirmation bias, it is important to create a strategy to combat it. A recent article, Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds, Here is What Does by Ozan Varol, provides some great suggestions:
- Do not feel your beliefs create your identity. Do not get defensive when someone questions you or your project. The data is not personal and you are not a better or worse person if your hypothesis is wrong.
- Develop better empathy. If someone disagrees with you, it is because they think they are correct. Understand why they are disagreeing and be open to them being potentially correct.
- Get out of your echo chamber. As Varol writes, “make a point to befriend people who disagree with you. Expose yourself to environments where your opinions can be challenged, as uncomfortable and awkward as that might be.” Seek out data that disproves your position.
Additionally, I have found pre-mortems a very useful tool to combat confirmation bias. A pre-mortem is a meeting held before a major decision where all those involved in making the decision imagine themselves six or twelve months after the decision was taken, assume it turned into a debacle, and then explore why it was a disaster. This type of meeting forces you to look at contradictory facts and raise potential problems.
It is important to be cognizant of confirmation bias and seek out all the information before making important decisions. Most importantly, look at contradictory information and do not discount it because it does not support your position.
- Confirmation bias is where people pick out examples or facts that support their belief, while neglecting conflicting evidence.
- Being data driven does not avoid confirmation bias, as people gravitate to the data that supports their beliefs.
- To combat confirmation bias, do not equate your beliefs with your identity, understand why others have different positions, seek out non-confirming data and do a pre-mortem for important decisions.