Questioning Our Beliefs: Confirmation Bias

Human beings make bad decisions all of the time. We use rules of thumb or “heuristics” in order to speed up decision-making. A recent article in Psychology Today, “Deadly Mind Traps” by Jeff Wise, shows several cognitive errors that humans are likely to make.

One of these traps is called confirmation bias. Once we have decided upon a belief, value or decision, we tend to seek out information that supports our position, while ignoring or rationalizing away information that dis-confirms our belief.

Last week, I wrote a post stating that leaders are born not made.  You wouldn’t believe the fuss among leadership development experts on twitter.  You would think I had just announced that the earth was flat.

What was interesting to me is that very few people were willing to question their own beliefs that leadership is something that can be developed, despite the fact that there is some pretty good research suggesting that leadership requires intelligence, drive and desire. There is also good research that suggests that height, gender and physical appearance all play a role in what followers are looking for in leaders.   Further research suggests that character traits such as humility and courage may not contribute to leadership success.

My guess is that we would like our leaders to have courage, humility and other traits that are perceived as generally positive.  But the real world doesn’t appear to reward those traits.

My purpose in writing the born vs. made post was to prod readers to be skeptical about their beliefs, assumptions and feelings. So the post was particularly provocative, perhaps overstating the case for the innate, born traits of leadership.

I believe that leadership is a function of both traits we are born with and the collective experience of life.  I do believe that our current cult of leadership, with its unending focus on leadership development, sets some people up for failure and disappointment. It also denigrate the importance of engaged followers.

When you read or hear something you disagree with, do you automatically respond, “that’s wrong”, or do you think about why your view might be wrong?  Who is your Devil’s Advocate? Do you question your assumptions, think about the evidence, or do you merely follow your instincts and confirm your own opinion?


5 replies »

  1. Colleen,
    Greetings. I am writing an iBook about mutual learning. I am following your discussion of the confirmation bias with great interest. I think it is the most destructive of the cognitive biases but doesn’t really get much attention in academia.

    I am going to “link” to your blog on Baker Street.

    Thanks, Steve

    • Thanks Steve. Your Baker Street Publishing Blog is very interesting, with a lot of great books and thinking about business. I appreciate the link. I’m interested in learning more about “mutual learning”. As an educator, I continue to develop my teaching tool kit.


  2. Great post! I found it via I also enjoyed the leader are born, not made post. It forces us all to look at the mental models we have of leaders and yes, we do have these ideas of what leaders ought to look like, sound like, etc that in not in any way aligned with what we “say” we want form leadership.

    I’ve been writing about decision making, mental models and bias for the past few months (on and off for years actually) across several blogs, I’m always excited when I find other folks writing about similar themes. I have linked to this post and suspect I will again.

    Thanks again for the awesome post and perspectives.

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