If you were listening to popular music in the mid-90s, you doubtless remember "Stay" by Lisa Loeb. I don’t know if the person who told her that she "only hears what she wants to" was a cognitive psychologist, but there was certainly truth in that remark - not just for Lisa, but for all of us.

Maybe if they had indeed been a psychologist they would have said "You suffer from confirmation bias", which would perhaps have not made such a good lyric. But confirmation bias is something we should all be aware of in ourselves - how it affects our perception of the world, and our ability to make good decisions.

What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is our natural tendency to pay more attention to information that reinforces what we already believe. It can take a few forms - putting more energy into actively seeking out evidence that matches our current thinking; giving more weight to the evidence that confirms our belief than the evidence that contradicts it; or noticing things that reinforce our point of view while ignoring those that don't.

Everyone is subject to confirmation bias, but we are rarely aware that we perceive the world through this limited view.

Impacts our lives, companies, and society

We likely view ourselves as fair people, making rational and objective judgements based on the facts in front of us. But confirmation bias affects our ability to do this.

Within our personal and professional lives, confirmation bias can cause us to make faulty decisions by encouraging us to keep a fixed view of what is true and not true.

Imagine your team made a change to a sales process to increase sales. In the first month sales are the same, but in the second month they go up. If you already believe that the change to the sales process will increase sales, you're likely to see that as evidence that the change caused that increase. But if that process change was someone else's idea that you didn't believe in, you'd probably see the lack of an increase in the first month as evidence that the process change didn't work - and you'd be looking for other reasons for sales increasing in month two.

Examples are seen in many areas - doctors forming an idea for a diagnosis, for instance, and then giving more weight to information that confirm that diagnosis; or people choosing news sources that reinforce their point of view on society.

Within our work, confirmation bias can be particularly dangerous when we're trying to figure out whether an idea we have or a change we could make is good or not.

Counteracting your bias

Self-awareness is crucial to trying to deal with your own confirmation bias. Start by being clear with yourself about what your current viewpoint, hypothesis or agenda is.

Then, the key factors for avoiding the confirmation bias trap are:

  • Make sure you actively seek out and listen for evidence that contradicts your current viewpoint. Ask people to tell you what's wrong with your idea, and listen to what they say.
  • Pay special attention to situations or examples that don't match with your hypothesis - don't ignore them or dismiss them easily
  • Consider whether you are genuinely giving equal weight to all the evidence you have. Be especially careful of making causal links that match your own perspective - what else might be going on instead?

Control your bias, rather than letting your bias control you

Confirmation bias is nothing to be embarrassed about. It's natural, and everyone has it.

By being aware that it exists though, you can take control of it - learn more, challenge yourself more, and make better decisions for yourself and those around you.

And no-one - in song or otherwise - will ever be able to claim that you only hear what you want to.