What is that old devil known as “Confirmation Bias”?

Nov 28, 2019

Since 2000, I have seen progressive interest regarding human psychology related to behaviour and habits associated with risk and workplace safety management.

One specific aspect has kept my attention throughout my career in Risk and Safety Management and that is “confirmation bias“.

But, before I dive into discussing confirmation bias, I must emphasise that I am not a psychologist, nor do I claim to be an expert in the area of cognitive behaviour.

Bias has various flavours, shapes, sizes and styles and is defined as:

A preference for the valued, and preference against the undervalued….

I have listed below some of the more widely known bias. However, this list is not exhaustive and there are many more biases that have been described/ defined which I am sure you find via internet search engines.

Anchoring Bias

Anchoring is a psychological heuristic (i.e., simple strategies to form judgements and make decisions by focusing on the most relevant aspects of a complex problem) that describes the propensity to rely on the first piece of information encountered when making decisions.

The initial price offered for a used car sets the standard for the rest of the negotiations so that prices lower than the initial price seem more reasonable even if they are still higher than what the car is worth.

Attribution Bias

When individuals assess or attempt to discover explanations behind their own and others’ behaviours. 

The project is delayed because testing isn’t finished. We think: “the tester doesn’t know what they are doing” (attributing it to a personality flaw) rather than looking at the situation of tester work overload.

Halo Effect

When an observer’s overall impression of a person, organisation, brand, or product influences their feelings about specifics of that entity’s character or properties. This is a specific type of confirmation bias (see below), wherein positive sentiments in one area cause questionable or unknown characteristics to be seen positively.

If the interview starts with a positive statement from the interviewee, then the interviewer tends to form a positive impression about the interviewee.

Horn Effect

The opposite of the halo is the horn effect, when “individuals believe (that negative) traits are interconnected”. It works in a negative direction.

If an interview starts with a negative statement from the interviewee, there is a higher chance that he would be rejected.

Confirmation Bias

This is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses while giving disproportionately less attention to information that contradicts it. A recent example of Confirmation Bias comes from the Deep-Water Horizon incident.

The drilling rig crew obtained a negative pressure test result that indicated the cement cap may be leaking and subject to a blowout. The crew believed this could be explained by different mechanisms. They then performed a second test, which gave a more favourable result. Given the ambiguous test results, the crew accepted the favourable test result as satisfactory.

In Conclusion:

Every day we make hundreds of decisions on a variety of subject matters from what to wear, eat, see etc. They can be trivial or complex subject matters. 

When it comes to thinking about bias relative to risk and safety management, ask yourself:

  • What biases do you possess?
  • Do these biases influence your decision-making process?
  • Which biases are evident in your workplace?
  • How do these workplace biases affect morale, motivation and performance?
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