The author and social advocate Upton Sinclair was a colorful person. A writer in many genres and one time losing candidate in the California gubernatorial election (1934) Sinclair had a quick wit and knack for turning out a sharp phrase. One of his most famous quotes regarding his election postmortem was, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” Cognitive psychologists point out that this is an early, though crude, formulation of the confirmation bias.
Chip and Dan Heath in their new book on decision-making, Decisive: How To Make Better Choices In Life and Work (2013), argue that the confirmation bias is one of the most dangerous traps decision-makers experience. People tend to search for and give greater weight to evidence that supports and confirms their already held beliefs. Evidence that questions their beliefs is dismissed and discounted.
“When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Political partisans seek out media outlets that support their side but will rarely challenge their beliefs by seeking out the other side’s perspective. Consumers who covet new cars or computers will look for reasons to justify the purchase but won’t be as diligent about finding reasons to postpone it” (pp.11-12).
History is replete with examples of leaders who fell victim to the confirmation bias and made terrible decisions. How then can leaders defend against it? The story is told about Alfred Sloan, the CEO of General Motors, who in the middle of a meeting where everybody was in agreement, stopped the discussion and said: “I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is about” (pp.94-95). Sloan realized something was wrong. If everybody was in agreement then something was being overlooked. He therefore challenged his management team to take some time and think things through.
Among the effective tools in combating this bias is questioning one’s assumptions, considering alternate scenarios and appointing somebody to be a devil’s advocate. Use of these tools will force people to confront the question of whether they simply believe what they want to believe.
The dangers of the confirmation bias can be seen in this week’s parsha in the section of the tochacha. The Torah states (26:21) that if Bnei Yisrael walk with Hashem b’keri then G-d will punish them severely. The Torah further states (26:23-24) that if after all these punishments Bnei Yisrael still persist in walking with Hashem b’keri then G-d will punish them seven-fold for their sins. In order to understand what Bnei Yisrael’s sin is we must first understand what the word keri in this context means.
Rashi (pasuk 21) states in his first explanation that it means that Bnei Yisrael will be inconsistent in their mitzvah observance. They will only occasionally observe the commandments, ostensibly when it is convenient and in their immediate interest. In his second explanation Rashi quotes from R. Menachem that it refers to their obstinate insistence in avoiding the fulfillment of mitzvot. Accordingly, Hashem’s response to them is measure for measure in that He will at most occasionally intercede on their behalf, if at all.
Rav Aharon Greenberg, in his anthology Iturei Torah, quotes an incisive explanation in the name of Rav Tzadok. Rav Tzadok suggests that the word keri when employed in verse 24 means random. In other words Bnei Yisrael’s sin is that despite the bad things they experienced as punishment for their lackluster commitment to the mitzvot they did not mend their ways. In fact, what they did was attribute the bad things that happened to them to happenstance. Rather than perceive them as divine retribution they viewed them as random occurrences with no connection to their actions. In other words, they were trapped by the confirmation bias. All evidence that indicated divine punishment was dismissed while all evidence indicating random coincidence was accepted. Such an attitude can only lead to further punishments. Only after extreme suffering will Bnei Yisrael finally have to admit the divine origin of what has happened to them.
Nearly all of us are subject to this bias and while it is dangerous for everyone, it is especially pernicious for leaders whose decisions impact their followers and organizations. Acknowledging its existence is the first step to countering its negative influence. The confirmation bias supports the notion that in life we often find what we look for, which is what we want to find. Leaders must search for what they don’t want to find as well.