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I believe: The trouble with confirmation bias

Jo Youle is the CEO of Missing People, a charity that offers a lifeline to the 250,000 people who run away and go missing each year in the UK.

I don’t like making mistakes. I don’t think many of us do. I don’t like getting things wrong since I’m the sort of person who works hard to get things right. I’m pre-programmed to think round corners, to not let the wool be pulled over my eyes.

But it could be worse. What if I make a mistake and don’t even realise I’m making it until it’s too late? What if we take our thinking, our organisations and other people’s lives off down the wrong road, and realise too late we’re in a cul-de-sac with no fuel to get us back on the right road?

Not so long ago, I made this kind of mistake. I just got the wrong idea in my head and blithely followed myself, down the wrong road.

A close friend’s mum died. I moved heaven and earth to be there for the funeral. I did a ‘belt and braces’ check on the address and was reassured it was the only crematorium in town. I arrived well over an hour early; checked with the guy working in the graveyard that I was in the right place.

I started to feel uneasy about 1pm, when the service was due to start in 15 minutes and no one had turned up. That guy I’d first spoken to asked, 'anything I can help with?' I told him what I was waiting for and he said, 'Oh, you want the crematorium, ‘love’, 10 miles from here, this is the cemetery'.

I did a slow motion fall apart; 10 miles from where I needed to be it was game over. I cried. Gutted that I wouldn’t be there for my friend. I had sort of known way before, that something wasn’t right. I hadn’t listened to my instinct. I’d simply got the wrong ‘idea’ in my head and everything I did, googled, and saw from that moment forward merely confirmed to me I was in the right place. A bad case of confirmation bias.

It’s a pervasive thing, this confirmation bias. And all the more annoying since I’ve been ‘on the watch’ for it since being warned about this for newbie, and oldie CEO’s. We all know about huge companies slowly leading themselves to disaster by distorted realities, and this, even when all the data and information suggested a different picture and a different road to take. Take the now stereotypical examples: Xerox, Kodak, Blackberry.

Think on the sad demise of Kids Company. I’ll always remember visiting one of their vibrant, happily noisy centres in north London. A piano lesson underway on the Coldplay-donated piano in reception, counselling rooms, play areas, needlework. Creativity, friendship and care everywhere, providing the sort of environment many lucky children expect and have at home. This, a charity where income climbed from £2m to £23m over 10 years, before it came publically crashing down, in 2015.

The signs must have been there for a long time. The numbers must have painted a picture. There must have been warning signs. Perhaps they were obscured by hopefulness, optimism, and a divine sense of purposefulness. Perhaps a successful history was being used to predict a successful future. The post-collapse parliamentary investigation concluded that the charity had been run according to 'wishful thinking'.

Another (nameless) charity was saved from the brink only by a newcomer. From someone not invested in the ‘story’ or the people of the charity. For ten years the charity had not changed anything in finance. The team were well respected and friendly. They quietly got on with their work, undisturbed. The treasurer and the senior finance bod got on well. The reserves pot was healthy.

The newbie CEO saw a different picture. A financial strategy that would mean doom. A picture the treasurer couldn’t see even when it was painted in front of them; a human being simply not wanting to believe difficult truths about people and the organisation they cared about so much.

But new people aren’t always the answer either. A familiar story? Recruiting someone on a strong belief bolstered by a long recruitment process, that they are a good and competent egg. And from that point on, every piece of work, every behaviour, feeds this same belief. The ‘good egg peg’. And all this despite evidence to the contrary. Yes, you might hear or see some negatives. You might listen to (but not hear) some politely shared concerns from others. But surely your own instincts, your years of experience count for something.

There might be a slow dawning and then the consequences. A slowness to respond. A team disheartened, and worried. Time lost. Trust gone. There were some important lessons to learn. Not least, how quickly a team can disintegrate with a less than competent egg at the helm and the importance of not believing yourself too much.

We create worlds for ourselves that confirm our own thinking and beliefs. Our own, personalised echo chambers. We select newsfeeds, watch the ‘bits’ we like on catch up TV. We select ‘our sort of people’ to follow whilst Facebook selects stuff for us - algorithmed around our web browsing. And as for Twitter, we make it so bespoke I’m sure most people could be psychologically profiled purely on those people they choose to follow.

Setting off with the wrong hypotheses can have the most serious consequences. Avid followers of miscarriage of justice programmes: podcasts Serial and Undisclosed and Netflix hit Making A Murderer will have learned about injustice when a (wrong) hypothesis rules in evidence when it supports the theory, and out when it doesn’t. It can be devastatingly life changing.

Reflect on this observed phenomenon. Student sailors under pressure. Entering a harbour or approaching a coastline for the first time, in the dark. Trying to correctly identify the flashing patterns of different colours lights, all flashing a different number of times and lengths to guide them safely home. The small matter of avoiding rocks, running aground or sinking. Convinced they ‘know’ where they are, and then persuading themselves, that a light clearly flashing 5 times, was flashing in fact flashing 6. Even finding excuses about why the rest of the 'picture' and the many other lights weren’t right.

Why do we do it? In my case turning up at the wrong place for a funeral. A mixture of emotion on a sad occasion. Over confidence in myself. A tad smug as someone who travels. Being on my own. I’ll never mix up cemetery and crematorium again, that much I know. I’ll go back to trusting instinct a little more, and the sat nav a little less.

Maybe it is a gift to be less confident. To be more open to challenge. More open to changing your mind. Or your perspective. Think of the childhood experience of a little girl in the back of the car, hearing her mum crying, her dad silent. Her belief for years that she’d done something very bad, and only decades later jolted when your older brother says, ‘do you remember us in the back of the car the day JFK was shot?’

I’m going to do my best to avoid cul-de-sacs. I’m going to try to lose my more opinionated self. I’m going to be particularly alert when I want something to be true, particularly as someone who cares so much for the charity I lead and the people we help. Less of the ‘I believe’ and more 'scientific integrity’. A phrase coined by Richard Feynman denoting ‘the willingness to bend over backward to examine reasons your pet theories about the world might be wrong’ (Julia Galef, Slate).

Please share your comments and views about this blog below, or you can contact Jo on Twitter.

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