How Confirmation Bias Can Ruin Work Relationships

Dan Doerksen

When’s the last time you used the phrase, “Classic ______,” to describe someone’s behaviour?

“Did Bob just run into a stationary object? Classic Bob.”

“Did Karen just demand to speak to the manager? Classic Karen.”

These are fun because there is usually just the right amount of truth to them. In fact, the more you say them, the more true they seem to become. The more you notice Bob bumping into people’s desks, the more he seems to do it, right? Why is this?

The reason this phrase is so satisfying – and self-fulfilling – is connected to a pervasive tendency that lives inside of every human being: confirmation bias.

Technically put, confirmation bias “is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.”

In simple terms, if we want to believe something, we will prove ourselves to be right.

We need to be aware of how our work brings about our various qualities, attributes, and ways of being.

Have you ever noticed that when you learn something new, suddenly you come across more and more examples that illustrate this new truth? Or maybe you’ve noticed that when you come across an article that someone’s shared online, you’re tempted to hit “like” or “share” even though you’ve only read the headline.

When someone expresses a view that lines up with our preexisting beliefs, we can quickly accept whatever argument or evidence they have to back it up. Alternatively, when someone disagrees with us, we all suddenly turn into Sherlock Holmes and start picking apart the validity of their arguments like some super sleuth.

Warren Buffet summed up this bias nicely when he said, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

The Problem Starts with Your Gut

If confirmation bias had a best friend, it would be our gut. When we trust our gut and believe that we can rapidly and accurately assess a person or situation using only our intuition, confirmation bias has a field day.

While we all want to believe that we can get a bead on someone pretty quickly, our first impressions are notoriously prone to errors.

Take interviews, for example. In their book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, Chip and Dan Heath share the story of the admissions interview process at the University of Texas School of Medicine. In 1979, the school interviewed 800 applicants and rated them according to a seven-point scale; they admitted only the top 350 students.

Then, unexpectedly, a piece of Texas legislature required them to admit another 50 students.  However, the only students still available at this point were those who ranked in the bottom 100 of the previous 800 applicants. By the time the year began, no one knew which students were ranked on the top and which 50 were part of the “bottom dwellers.” Thus, the perfect conditions for a natural social experiment were created.

What was the performance difference between these two groups? Precisely zero. Both groups graduated and received honours at the same rate. They also went on to perform equally well in their first year of residency. It turns out that their interview process was only good at testing applicants’ ability to be interviewed.

In another disconcerting study, researchers found that this tendency to trust our gut also frequently leads doctors astray, as nearly 40% of their initial diagnoses were wrong. Regardless of how certain doctors were that they were correct, their intuition remained dangerously flawed.

Confirming Our Biases Towards Others

When we combine confirmation bias with our tendency to trust our gut, it can fool us into believing our first impressions are remarkably accurate because we keep confirming them to be true.

Although it’s natural to engage more in some relationships than others, being healthy in relationships means prioritizing and engaging with intentionality.

When it comes to our impressions of people, this is often referred to as either the halo effect or the horns effect. If we think positively about someone early on, it is like they have a halo around them and they can do no wrong. If we are unimpressed with someone off the bat, it is unlikely that we will change our mind about them. We notice the moments that confirm our first impressions, and we downplay or dismiss any evidence that seems to show otherwise.

Left unchecked, confirmation bias can create deep divides in our teams and encourage the formation of unhealthy cliques. It can take a mountain of evidence to change our mindsets once we’ve allowed this bias to take effect. For deeply held beliefs, it may never change.

To add another layer here, research shows that our first impressions of people are far more likely to be positive when they take place in person. That means that all those first-time connections over video chat, email, or messaging we’ve had during COVID-19 have likely created subpar first impressions which, if we’re not careful, could snowball into long-term beliefs about each other that may not be accurate.

Counteracting the Bias

While there is no easy solution for confirmation bias, we can start by simply learning to be gracious with each other and giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Practice second-guessing your first impressions and be open to seeing people in a new light.  Meditation or mindfulness can be a helpful way to become more self-aware of the emotions and biases that may live inside you.

If the horns effect has done its work already and there is a coworker that you just can’t handle, you may need to be more proactive in changing your attitude towards them. Keep a list and record only the positive things you notice about them for a few weeks (no negative items allowed!). It’s amazing how a shift in perspective like this can help us start to see a person in a new way.

So, next time you’re tempted to say, “Classic ______,” stop and ask yourself: “Is it really?”


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Author: Dan Doerksen
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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