Composing yesterday’s blog about my recent experience with Hopi ear candles, first evangelising and then debunking them, provided me with a reminder lesson opportunity about confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out “proof” that confirms our preconceived notions on a subject or existing belief – and we are all prone to this all of the time, on scales big and small.
Religious folks actively, and unconsciously, seek out and interpret events as evidence of God’s will. We don’t like someone, we pick up on any details that could show them in a negative light. What’s more, our brains are wired to reward us for our biases. Whenever, we land on a piece of “confirming” data, we experience a dopamine rush of excitement. You know the feeling: yes, yes, yes, I knew it!
And technology aids and abets. How we structure our search terms is telling, and can yield vastly different, dopamine-rewarding results. Thus, in the case of my Hopi ear candle quest, when I was excited and wanting to share the experience with my partner Peter, I Googled “buy Hopi ear candles” and was delivered straight to this Amazon page, where I found 227 largely positive reviews from enthusiasts (average rating 4.5 stars).
Had I asked Google the more neutral “do Hopi ear candles work?” or even “do Hopi ear candles remove wax?”, the top result would have been the Wikipedia entry that, indeed, caused me to conduct my own experiment.
And had I been biased the other way to start with, and Googled “debunk Hopi ear candles”, I would have been treated to this Quackwatch rant.
If you’re researching something important to you, be aware of confirmation bias in your general thinking and in your search terms, and conduct further searches for information that challenges your natural inclination. Ask not only are things as I think they are, but what else could they possibly be? If not, you risk making poor decisions based on dodgy data.
Of course, once you have more balanced information to work from, you’ve still got to figure out what to believe! And that’s getting harder than ever. I read a fantastic book on this subject – Noreena Hertz’s Eyes Wide Open; How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World, which I heartily recommend.
Confirmation biases have always been a challenge to good decision-making (even pre-Google), but Hertz asserts that our modern world presents three new, massive pressures that make things even more difficult for us:
- Data deluge – We’re confronted by and consuming more new data in the Sunday newspapers than the average 17th-century person did in their entire lifetime. To make a within-living-memory comparison: as of 2008, we were consuming three times as much information as our parents did in 1960. Come 2020, we’ll be consuming 44 times more than we do today. Judging by Google’s year-on-year search statistics, even that staggering growth may be an underestimate: in 1998, the company’s first official year, 3,600,000 annual searches were made with a daily average of 9,800; last year, there were 2,161,530,000,000 annual searches, averaging out at 5,922,000,000 a day. (Is your brain starting to hurt yet?) And, as the Hopi example demonstrates, there can be a lot of contradictory “expert” opinion in the deluge.
- Digital distraction – This information is coming at us all the time, of course, in a gazillion different ways with phones, emails, apps and social media all dinging and pinging their alerts and notifications at us. More stats: we spend three-quarters of our waking lives received information and the average computer user will check email and/or social media 37 times an hour! This constant interruption can make concentration near-impossible.
- Disorder and decline – Added to all the above is the overall pace of technological and socio-economic world change, which is dizzyingly fast and often destructive of old orders. Thousands of jobs are lost in one fell swoop, brand-name corporate institutions go bust, entire industries are decimated, governments are overthrown, seemingly in the blink of an eye. The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty, now more than ever – and, increasingly, past experience or knowledge is no longer a reliable predictor of the future.
But we don’t get a break. In this deluged, distracted and disordered environment, every one of us have to make over 10,000 decisions every day, according to Hertz. Now your brain really is hurting and you’re exhausted, right?
I won’t fillet the entire book for you, but I’d like to share my biggest, most useful take-away with you: of those 70,000 decisions in a week, remove and or automate as many as you possibly can, then figure out which ones are the priorities, the real important life and work doozies, and buy yourself some time.
Our hyperdrive world will make you feel like everything must must must be decided upon and executed in hyper speed, but for important stuff, it doesn’t and shouldn’t. Smart decisions demand time, space and proper consideration. So give yourself that time and the space to check your confirmation bias, gather as much information as you need, sleep on it, reflect and sleep on it some more before you commit.
If the outcome of your decision is far in the future, give yourself even more time, because it’s likely that the pace of change may throw a spanner in the works anyway. Build-in some flexibility in your decision for plans B, C and D in case of that eventuality.