Yet, large segments of the population still believe that various events are more likely to occur on a full moon. This is an example of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to selectively search for and favour information that confirms one’s beliefs. It causes people to select and/or interpret information in a manner that supports their pre-existing beliefs while ignoring or rejecting evidence that supports a different conclusion.
Confirmation bias, just like its cousin “stereotyping” and its parent “plain old bias” disproportionately affects marginalized groups. You believe that women have neat handwriting. You observe a woman having neat handwriting and this confirms for you that women, generally speaking, have neat handwriting. What’s wrong with that? Well, what about your assumption that women are not good at math? Or don’t have what it takes to be successful at commercial litigation? Unfortunately, every time a woman leaves the private practice of law (and we know there are plenty), the confirmation bias is strengthened. What about that other female commercial litigator who is still at the firm? Do you think she is going to stick around? Are you making decisions that (unconsciously) assume she is going to leave (for instance, when she asked for additional funds to attend that conference, or be supported for that award)?
Darwin himself was aware of confirmation bias, writing: “I had also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones.”
Make no mistake — we all have biases. Paulette Brown is the first woman of colour to be the president of the American Bar Association. She is also the chief diversity officer (and partner) at her law firm. In her interview with More Magazine, Brown explains that all of us, including herself, have stereotypes that affect our thinking. She learned through bias testing that she favours gay people (even though she is straight) and thin people. Brown is advocating for all members of the ABA to learn about their unconscious biases (visit www.projectimplicit.net if you want to learn more or do your own testing).
Confirmation bias is a serious problem that has been linked to climate change denial, anti-vaccine beliefs, flawed police investigations, and wrongful convictions. Its reach travels further than the moon and even invades politics and law firms. Confirmation bias flourishes when decision-makers are all like-minded people coming from like-minded backgrounds with like-minded experiences (as they are likely to have the same pre-existing beliefs). Confirmation bias is an innovation exterminator. The best way to kill innovative ideas is to have a group of homogenous people evaluate them. Diversity, on the other hand, is like an innovation superpower.
After all, it’s hard for a group of like-minded people to think of different (innovative) ways of doing business. So, if innovation is one of your firm’s goals, then maybe you should give serious thought to that partnership board or management candidate who appears the least like everyone else. While you may not agree with many of their views, chances are they will have innovative ideas and one of these may just evolve (with the help of others) into the next best thing.
I’m thinking our new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, must understand this given his efforts in making a diverse cabinet (no doubt there are still some groups who are not represented and/or under-represented). Maybe he read my March column “Make It Happen” (in which I advocated for improved gender representation among law firms and across business generally). When asked why gender parity was important for cabinet, he gave the best answer ever: ‘Because it’s 2015’. I agree completely — no further explanation needed. As writer Lauren Messervey put it: “In a gender equal society, this gender equal cabinet wouldn’t be big news because that’s the way it should be.” Although, addressing confirmation bias and encouraging innovation could be added if business and law firms need extra convincing.