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Confirmation Bias

I am facing a very big decision that needs to be made within the next 6 months or so.  We’ve really outgrown our existing cheese kitchen.  We need some bigger equipment that we would have a tough time finding room for in our current kitchen.  And so I need to decide whether or not we are growing the dairy part of Goat Milk Stuff.  Growing would require building an incredibly expensive new cheese plant. This is a huge decision with lots of ramifications in many, many areas.

Cheese Kitchen

On the surface, I know what I want to do – I want to build.  Why?  Because I definitely have a “go big or go home” mindset.  The idea of scaling back a successful and growing business goes against everything my “go-getter” body wants to do.

But another part of me passionately hates debt.  And there is no way I could build a new cheese plant and purchase the equipment I would then need without going heavily into debt.

And so I’m torn.

But as a logical, systems engineer, I know that I have to take the emotion out of the decision and run the numbers.  And so that’s what we’re doing.  We’re taking the next several months and coming up with an objective business plan.

But did you catch that word I used? “Objective?”  That’s the tricky part, right there.  It’s hard to be objective when you are so intimately involved in the decision because of what psychologists like to call “confirmation bias”.

PsychologyToday.com defines confirmation bias as:

Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

And Wikipedia says:

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

And so I need to be very careful because a big part of me simply wants Goat Milk Stuff to grow.  I want to get more goat milk, chocolate milk, goat milk egg nog (yep, I can make that with the new cheese plant), yogurt, kefir, and cheese out there into people’s hands.  The milk from healthy, pastured goats is so healthy and I want more people to be able to experience the goodness of goat milk.

Indiana Goat Milk

So because a big part of me already wants to build a cheese plant means that I have to make sure I am not influenced by confirmation bias.   I know this.  Just because I want to build a new cheese plant doesn’t mean that I should.  And even if I should build a new cheese plant, that doesn’t mean I should build it now.

So how should you (and I) make sure our decisions are not overly influenced by confirmation bias?

Gather as much information as possible.  Before going too far into the decision making process, gather your data.  If I’m already dreaming of what a new cheese plant will look like and how much more efficient it will be, then confirmation bias will take over and everything I later gather will confirm my decision to build.

Question everything.  As you’re gathering your data, you need to question everything.  Question your motives, question whichever assumptions you made, and question the data itself.  Normally when we’re making a decision about the unknown, we have to make assumptions.  Don’t let your confirmation bias lead you in a direction where the assumptions push you toward the outcome you want.

Talk to others (especially those who disagree with you).  This is probably most important.  You need to find people who will give you their objective opinion.  And know that everybody has an agenda whether they realize it or not.  Don’t forget to account for that.

Play devil’s advocate.  Actively look for the reasons to support the decision you don’t inherently want.  Become good at arguing both sides of the issue.  If the decision was black and white, it would be easy to make.  Playing devils’ advocate will help you bring out the grey areas.

Look for Baby Steps.  Consider all of your options.  Can you work your way to the outcome you want over time?  Or does it have to be all or nothing?

Create hurdles to overcome.  If you know you are the type of person to give in to your confirmation biases, put in place hurdles that you need to overcome.  For example, do you have to get somebody to agree with you that this is the path you should pursue?

Describe in detail the worst case scenario.  What’s the worst thing that could happen if you made the decision you want?  How will you handle it if that happens?  While you shouldn’t give in to fear, you need to consider the worst possible outcome when making your decision.

The decision I described is a big one.  And it won’t be made quickly.  In fact, the bigger the decision, the longer I try to take in making it.

But confirmation bias also occurs in the little, everyday decisions we make.  Let’s say you’re trying to eat healthier and you see a brownie that you want.  Confirmation bias may try to convince you that you had a salad for lunch so it’s ok to eat that brownie.  But recognize it for what it is – you’re trying to confirm your desire to eat the brownie.  Take a step back and try to overcome that bias.  I’m not saying you can’t eat it, but if you decide to, make sure you make the decision for the right reasons.

So what about you?  Do you struggle with confirmation bias?  How has it affected your life?