If you want to be right, you better recognize when you're wrong!

Posted by Brendan Kay on Nov 4, 2012 4:05:00 PM


It is always satisfying when life deals out experiences that show that you were right about something significant. In fact, it is so satisfying that we are inclined to invent situations where this happens. When looking at new information we will naturally filter it through what we already believe and often conclude that it proves what we already thought. 

It is interesting that one of the characteristics that Tim Cook admired most about Steve Jobs was his ability to change his mind. It is also worth noting that Jeff Bezos has recently added that people who are right a lot are the people who often changed their mind.

The tendency to interpret new information to suit our existing views is called Confirmation Bias and it is a significant hurdle that can slow our learning if we are not careful.

I am acutely aware that writing about this topic means creates a paradox for me with regards to proving my point. Any examples that I provide could be rightfully dismissed as me falling into the same problem that I am warning against. I therefore have decided to take the easy way out and simply assert my belief without any real proof. I will leave it to the reader to figure out a way to provide proof with relying on circular logic :-).

Confirmation Bias is pretty easy to spot in others who have a different view to us. We can easily see that what they are putting forward as proof has an alternate explanation. It is much harder to spot in ourselves.

You see example very regularly in political and religious debates. Two (or more) people looking at the same facts and concluding that they prove different things. In many cases the underlying facts do not prove either position but are consistent with both.

It is interesting to me that the scientific methods developed over the past centuries have built in ways to try to reduce the impact of Confirmation Bias. In most fields a scientific study has to be able to show a 95% probability in order to be accepted as support for the proposed finding. In real life I think people usually use a much lower threshold (often.

I find that there are several techniques to reduce my tendency to fall for Confirmation Bias.

  • Be aware. Just being conscious of our natural tendency can help to reduce the number of times that we fall for it.
  • Listen with intent. When discussing an idea with someone who has a different view, really try to listen to what they are trying to say more than trying to tell them what you think. You already know what you think and you gain no knowledge at all by expressing it. You might pick up something in what the other person is thinking though.
  • Try to prove yourself wrong. Borrowing from the scientific method, adopt a bias towards proving yourself wrong when thinking about your ideas. You get much more benefit from finding out when you are wrong about something than you do from deciding you were right all along. Look for opportunities to learn something that really extends your knowledge.