Enjoying Your Work
Confirmation bias is a difficult trait to counter
THIS should be an interesting task," Cindy Tanaka said to herself. Cindy had been asked by the senior managers of her organization to join a panel of employees that would make recommendations regarding promotions.
Cindy, a mortgage banker, had worked in the same organization for eight years. As a college student, she had taken an internship in the organization, performed well, and was hired as a full time employee after graduation.
Cindy knew that Herb Schumate would be one of the candidates she would be considering. Cindy had worked with Herb when she was an intern, but doubted that he remembered this fact. She did not have particularly fond memories.
Cindy thought that Herb was demanding, condescending, and treated her as a menial laborer rather than as an intern who wanted professional experience.
Cindy told her immediate supervisor that she knew many of the candidates for promotion and had both positive and negative experiences with them. Perhaps she should turn down the invitation.
Her supervisor told her, "Everyone on the panel whose members will make recommendations knows many of the candidates. Such knowledge is valuable. The executives want to receive the recommendations of people who know the candidates well and who have observed their work for many years."
When the panel met, Cindy reviewed Herb's application. She found that she could not become impressed. Herb seemed to do work that was of average quality and which rarely went beyond the written requirements of his job description.
His letters of recommendation seemed tame, with phrases such as "performs at a level comparable to people in his department with the same amount of education and job experience."
When she discussed her observations with those of other panel members, however, she found that she had a minority opinion.
Most other panel members thought that Herb's application was well prepared and that he was a good candidate for promotion.
Cindy may have fallen victim to the confirmation bias. When people have strong preconceived views, they search available facts for evidence that supports these views.
Since most collections of facts are not perfectly clear and are open to various interpretations, people can almost always find information to support the views that they already have formed.
Examples can be seen during political campaigns. A Republican candidate makes a speech that targets wasteful spending on government programs for working class families. Staunch Democrats complain that the candidate is trying to eliminate reasonable entitlements. Supportive Republicans applaud the same speech as supporting individual initiative and as getting the government off the backs of the electorate.
In Cindy's case, memories of Herb's behavior during her internship eight years ago led to a predetermined opinion.
She does not care for Herb and finds reasons to oppose his promotion application.
She reviews work and concludes that it is of average quality, not realizing that this judgment is colored by her previous negative experiences.
She does not stop to consider that her problems may have been due to a personality clash with Herb that rarely occurs with other employees.
She interprets phrases comparing him as similar to others as indicative of mediocre work.
But such a conclusion could indicate very high performance if Herb is a member of a highly productive department where the average measurable output is higher than similar departments in other organizations.
The confirmation bias is difficult to counter. Cindy can make attempts only if she is aware of it and consciously takes steps to challenge her preconceived views. If she is unable to do this by herself, she can benefit from listening closely to panel members who disagree with her.
Realizing the existence of this bias, people who might be targets can supply information that is objective and that is less susceptible to varying interpretations.
In Herb's case, for example, he could submit specific data on his performance. This could include reports about money brought into the organization, ratings of customer satisfaction, and number of requests received from coworkers that requested his collaboration on various projects.
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The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.
Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office: firstname.lastname@example.org