Beware the Snare of Confirmation Bias

By Greg Alvarado, Chief Editor at Inspectioneering. December 29, 2022

Wikipedia defines confirmation bias as:

“The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values. People display this bias when they select information that supports their views, contrary information, or when they interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing attitudes. The effect is strongest for desired outcomes, emotionally charged issues, and for deeply entrenched beliefs. Confirmation bias cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed, for example, by education and training in critical thinking skills.”

We all are prone to confirmation bias in one form or another. This is one of the reasons we need the data! But as another adage teaches, numbers can lie.

I remember taking a course on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a book originally written by the late Stephen Covey. One of the quotes that stuck with me is “Decisions are easy when there are no contradictions in our value system.” So, motives are important. I believe most of us can agree that this flawed way of thinking can lead to poor decisions.

Do you recall the story of the housewife who was preparing a large roast for dinner? Someone was watching and asked why she cut it in two and used two baking pans. She said she was using her mother’s recipe; this is how she always did it. The young cook did a little research only to find out that her mom used two baking dishes because she did not have one large enough to cook the entire roast! Just a little due diligence can have a big impact.

I remember not too long ago when a mechanical integrity group for a major operator was frustrated when WFMT for HIC was planned and executed every turnaround for some equipment. HIC had never been experienced with this equipment and it was their firm belief that it was not a concern from a corrosion/materials/inspection/reliability perspective. The turnaround management and operations were biased without justification.

How many times have we pursued technologies, practices, and other methods only to end up with results of minimum or no value to what we really needed to accomplish, and it was an expensive lesson? Often, we settle at that point. In retrospect, we see that we had some flawed attitudes or beliefs from the outset. Sometimes we need to check our motives. Maybe we are worried about bringing this to light because we either recommended it or were a part of the team that did. So, we just keep doing it. Motivation can be a big factor.

This is just a little thought to help in your journey toward success! It is so important in a world full of technologies that are emerging daily, including IT challenges with the various software programs we use to manage data and programs, locally and enterprise-wide. How important are attitudes and behavior like that when we are trying to build and implement sustainable programs? It is so important for us, as professionals, to be honest with ourselves.

Please share your thoughts with us on how you think confirmation bias affects the success of our industries and what you have done to overcome it. Thanks in advance for your feedback.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year!

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