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Battling Confirmation Bias: A Widespread Cognitive Bias We All Share

Control room, image made by author with DiffusionBee

  1. Confirmation bias, as defined by psychologist Peter Wason, is a widespread cognitive bias that affects all of us. It is the proclivity to seek, interpret, favour, and retain information that confirms our preexisting views or hypotheses while assigning disproportionately less weight to opposing options. This prejudice pervades all part of our life, including our professional fields, and is not confined to how we view politics or social concerns. The aviation industry provides one of the most prominent illustrations of the impact of confirmation bias. However, aviation lessons are not limited to the air; they can provide significant insights for other businesses and our daily lives. Based on the pioneering work of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the experiences of the aviation sector, this essay will investigate the notion of confirmation bias, its manifestation in aviation and other industries, and how we might limit its impacts.

Recognising Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is strongly ingrained in our mental processes. It is the result of our brain’s yearning for efficiency and consistency. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman pioneered the division of human cognitive processes into two systems: System 1 (rapid, intuitive, and emotive) and System 2 (slower, more deliberate, and logical). System 1 thinking is characterised by confirmation bias. It enables us to make sense of information fast and make decisions with minimal effort. This efficiency, however, comes at a cost. When we choose information that confirms our previous ideas, we may ignore or discard contradictory data, potentially leading to errors in judgement and decision-making.

Kahneman’s study also emphasises the importance of heuristics, or mental shortcuts, in our thought processes. These heuristics frequently serve us well, assisting us in rapidly and efficiently navigating the world. They can, however, mislead us, causing us to make decisions based on insufficient or erroneous information. One such heuristic is confirmation bias. It streamlines our decision-making process by focusing on information that supports our previous views and dismissing everything else.

Understanding confirmation bias is the first step towards reducing its impact. Recognising that we are all prone to this prejudice allows us to start developing ways to combat it in both our personal and professional lives.

Aviation Confirmation Bias

The impacts of confirmation bias can be especially obvious in the aviation business, where safety is crucial and judgements must frequently be made rapidly. For example, a pilot may construct an initial mental model based on a normal pre-flight check that the aircraft is functioning properly. If a minor problem emerges during the flight, the pilot may reject it as insignificant or interpret it in a way that validates the pilot’s initial assumption that the aircraft is in good condition. If the minor problem is truly an indication of a larger mechanical failure, this could pose a substantial safety risk.

Confirmation bias has played a role in various real-world aviation incidents throughout history. The 2009 disaster of Air France Flight 447 is one such case. The pilots were presented with contradictory information and, motivated by confirmation bias, made decisions based on their original perception of the situation, which was tragically inaccurate.

The aviation sector has recognised the potential consequences of confirmation bias and has established different mitigation techniques. These include extensive training programmes emphasising the necessity of examining all available information rather than just information that confirms current opinions, as well as the use of checklists and standard operating procedures to ensure that crucial steps are not missed owing to prejudice.

Confirmation Bias in Other Sectors

Confirmation bias is not limited to aviation; it pervades all industries and sectors. In healthcare, for example, a clinician may establish an initial diagnosis based on a patient’s most evident symptoms, then seek information that validates this diagnosis while discounting or omitting contradictory facts. This could result in a misdiagnosis and ineffective treatment.

Investors and experts in the financial sector may choose information that validates their opinions about a particular investment opportunity and disregard warning flags or bad information. This might result in bad investing choices and financial losses.

The technology industry is no exception. For example, software developers may become so confident in the quality of their code that they reject defects reported by users or fail to adequately test their product for any flaws.

While each industry has its own set of issues, the fundamental cognitive bias is consistent. Recognising the presence and possible impact of confirmation bias is the first step in mitigating its impacts. Strategies developed in one area, like as the use of checklists in aviation, can frequently be modified and utilised in other industries to help mitigate this bias.

The Pervasiveness of Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias has an impact on our everyday decision-making and societal challenges that extends beyond professional fields. It influences everything from politics and climate change to personal relationships and lifestyle choices. We prefer news sources that support our political ideas, read ambiguous remarks from others in ways that confirm our preconceived notions about their quality or worth, and even purchase items or services based on previous notions about their quality or value.

Daniel Kahneman’s research has shown the psychological underpinnings of confirmation bias and other cognitive biases. He contends that these biases are firmly established in our cognitive processes rather than mere errors in thinking. They are part of our instinctive System 1 thinking, which is quick and automatic but prone to mistakes. Our slower, more deliberate System 2 thinking can assist us in combating these biases, but it takes work and awareness.

Because confirmation bias is universal, we all have a responsibility to play in minimising its impacts. We may make more balanced and informed decisions in many aspects of our lives if we are conscious of this bias and actively seek out varied opinions and facts.

Mitigating Confirmation Bias: Aviation Lessons

The aviation sector, with its stringent safety standards and processes, may teach us a lot about how to avoid confirmation bias. The use of checklists and standard operating procedures is an important tactic. These techniques ensure that important steps are not missed and that judgements are not made purely on the basis of personal views or preconceptions. They give a structured decision-making framework that can assist mitigate the impacts of confirmation bias.

Another important factor is training. Pilots and air traffic controllers in aviation receive intensive training that includes an emphasis on human issues such as confirmation bias. They are taught to be conscious of their prejudices and to make judgements based on all available information.

In addition to the lessons learnt from aviation, practising critical thinking is an excellent way to reduce confirmation bias. Individuals are given a formal framework to examine their own prejudices and make more objective decisions through critical thinking. It entails purposeful and critical thinking in response to three essential questions:

      1. Am I missing something? Individuals are prompted to actively seek out facts or opinions that may contradict their previous beliefs or preconceptions in response to this query. It teaches children to evaluate opposing points of view and assess all available facts before reaching a conclusion. Individuals can avoid confirmation bias and retain a more balanced perspective by being aware of the danger of overlooking key factors.
      2. Are there any inconsistencies? This question invites people to think critically about the information they’ve gathered. It prompts individuals to detect any discrepancies or contradictory evidence that might call their initial assumptions or hypotheses into question. Individuals can avoid selectively focusing on information that aligns with their existing views by identifying discrepancies and instead seek for a more full and unbiased knowledge of the situation.
      3. Have I made any incorrect assumptions? This question prompts people to consider the assumptions that underpin their mental process. It encourages them to consider if their conclusions are backed by strong facts or if they have made unwittingly unfounded assumptions. Individuals can reveal latent biases and participate in more objective reasoning by questioning their assumptions.

    Individuals can build an attitude of intellectual humility, open-mindedness, and intellectual rigour by embracing these three critical thinking questions. It enables users to question their own cognitive biases, improve decision-making processes, and reach more accurate and well-informed decisions.

    Critical thinking is useful outside of the aviation business. It has numerous uses in a variety of fields, including healthcare, finance, technology, and everyday life. Healthcare practitioners can avoid diagnosis errors by examining alternative alternatives and properly evaluating patient symptoms while using critical thinking. By critically analysing facts, identifying potential dangers, and avoiding quick judgements, investors can make more smart financial decisions. By using critical thinking to fix defects or bugs revealed by users, software developers can improve the quality of their products.

    Individuals are empowered to be active participants in their decision-making processes when critical thinking is emphasised as a solution to confirmation bias. Individuals can overcome confirmation bias and develop a culture of critical thinking by continually challenging assumptions, finding alternative perspectives, and scrutinising evidence.

    These aircraft tactics can be copied and implemented in other businesses as well as in our personal life. Furthermore, we may all benefit from the training that pilots undertake. We can make more balanced and informed decisions if we educate ourselves about confirmation bias and other cognitive biases, and actively seek out alternative opinions and facts.

    In conclusion, confirmation bias is a universal cognitive bias that affects everyone. We can, however, mitigate its effects by learning from industries like aviation and the pioneering work of researchers like Daniel Kahneman, and individuals can improve their cognitive abilities, make more objective judgements, and navigate complex decision-making processes with greater clarity and accuracy.

    This article was also published in a, dutch, abbreviated version on LinkedIn.

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