The recent US presidential election gave an excellent example of the role that confirmation bias plays in too much of our thinking. It is particularly present and dangerous in the Orientate phase of the OODA loop.
First let me define the term: Confirmation bias is the mental practice whereby we only give credence to evidence that supports – confirms – our previous opinions. Other evidence is discarded on any pre-text: not current, biased research, poor methodology, hidden agendas, bias, etc.
During the election a voting polls analyst named Nate Silver consistently pointed to the fact that his analysis of ALL published polls – the ALL is important – indicated that there was solid evidence that President Obama would win comfortably. Mr Silver has a very good track record for non-partisan forecasts. He correctly predicted the outcome of the 2008 Presidential contest and the 2010 Republican success. He basically tells it as the data indicates.
His prediction that President Obama would win handily was viewed with skepticism, at best, by the political pundit class, Republicans and Democrats, who based on their “knowledge” and gut feel, but no data, said the election was too close to call. On the more extreme fringes of the Republican Party they claimed his information was biased and their polls showed, without the Silver “bias” that Mitt Romney was ahead in key states. Well we know who was right and who was wrong. Nate Silver got it right again!
Political pundits are not alone in this “cherry picking” of facts to sustain a chosen belief: Economists, sports fans, ones children, all seek out evidence to support the case that they are trying to prove. Rarely do they look at the evidence that contradicts their stance. When it is brought to their attention then it is dismissed.
After all why ruin a good story with pesky facts.
This sort of behavior is very prevalent in project management. Evidence that a particular project is not going to meet its desired goals is ignored. Many companies subscribe to the idea that poorly performing projects should be axed. Yet very few are. If a project is approved and started then it is rare that it is halted. Some project are never closed, they are deprived of adequate funds and exist in a zombie twilight zone, neither dead nor alive. All the while their sponsors point to evidence that the project is working. Who of us hasn’t sat through an executive presentation were known failures are lauded has being successful.
So we has project managers have to resist the urge to only look at evidence that reflects our beliefs – positive or negative – on a given project or topic. When we are given new observations and we are internally orientating to this new information we have to assess ALL the observations not just those that suit our pre-conceived opinions.
If we don’t then we run the risk of the embarrassment that befell the noted political pundit Karl Rove on Nov 6th this year. Mr Rove, who was a key player in the Republican campaign – spending some $300 million of other people’s money on losing causes, was incensed that the FOX news channel was stating that President Obama would win the State of Ohio. His information, from the Romney campaign – no bias there, indicated that the state would go to Romney. He insisted that one of the show’s anchors walk to the network’s election desk to “put them right”: pun intended. Well in a classic piece of television the statisticians on the desk ‘stuck to their guns’ and were provided right. Huge amounts of embarrassment at FOX News, no apology from Mr Rove – who probably still thinks he was correct – and a classic and public example of confirmation bias.
So who do you want to be, Nate Silver or Karl Rove? Go with the facts or with your biases?