When is Right Wrong?

John Kenneth Galbraith, a Canadian-born economist, said “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

Confirmation bias is believing what you want to believe even though the hard evidence contradicts your conclusions. This hard-wired cognitive blind spot leads many to doggedly focus on proving themselves right rather than aiming for the best result.

Being so focussed on confirming what we already think is true, it doesn’t even occurs to us that we always have a choice to change our minds. We fail to see the possibilities in the perspectives we discount as well as those we don’t take the time to think about in the first place. We discredit or ignore views that are hostile to our own, sensing they are out of touch with reality or just plain stupid.

We are reflexively predisposed to deny the existence of disconfirming information. Governments in particular masquerade the true implications of their initiatives for ideological and bureaucratic reasons. They focus on the presumed benefits of their legislative agenda while either ignoring or purposefully understating its costs and possible unintended consequences.

Business leaders are no exception. Open-plan offices were first designed to encourage collaboration and creativity. Even though there is a mountain of research that shows they have the opposite effect, many companies continue to opt for open-landscaped working environments. They may sound like a good idea – airy offices with potted plants might look nice but those who continue building them are in obvious denial. Though they choose to believe otherwise, the real reason is economics.

Those who seek to prove themselves right, albeit often well-intentioned, work hard to find evidence that will support their views. They then go to extreme, sometimes absurd, lengths to prove those with differing opinions wrong. As Colin Powell, an American elder statesman, observed “Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” When we wrap our identity tightly around being right we become blind to how our ever-changing world might actually work.

It’s easier to accept the propositions of someone who agrees with you than someone who does not. A basic building block to sustainable personal and organizational development is the degree to which taking multiple perspectives on complicated or thorny issues becomes a habit. Taking contrarian views into account before making big decisions enables us to see a wider range of possibilities, draw more meaningful conclusions and better empathize with others.

Confirmation bias is the brain’s normal response to opposing viewpoints – the brain acts as a filter, keeping from our view any ideas that may be disconcerting. Countering this natural tendency must be an intentional act. When we assume the perspective of others, even momentarily, we come up with new questions to ask.

Asking different, penetrating questions may well be the most underrated of all our skills. In school, we were invariably rewarded for knowing the right answers rather than asking good questions. We are still generally not rewarded for not knowing the answers. Yet, having both the courage and ability to ask probing questions – ones that make people think – and being open to a wider range of possibilities are the levers to personal growth.

The questions we typically ask, the ones our brains formulate with little effort, are the questions that keep us on the same path (because the answers are same-old, non-informative and uncreative). In conditions of uncertainty or ignorance, we tend to ask questions that keep us in familiar territory. Because our brains want us to feel comfortable, not confused.

To be able to ask different questions (than others might ask) is the essence of the strategic mind. It is a habit of mind that keeps us learning what we don’t already know, that stretches the brain and generates even better questions. Being strategic isn’t a personality trait you were born with but it is something you can learn how to do. It is the antidote to confirmation bias.

As an executive coach, I often remind leaders that their employees and their clients are just making sense of the world in different ways and that those differences really do matter to them. They are humans being human. By simply remembering that we are all trying to figure out, in our own unique way, what’s right in the world where we live, we can change the way we react to others (as well as ourselves).