Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

Confirmation Bias and Loss of Autonomy

without comments

I’ve mentioned confirmation bias in a few of my previous blog posts but I hadn’t realised quite how widespread it can be in organisations until quite recently.

Confirmation bias

[A] tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.

As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way.

The biases appear in particular for emotionally significant issues and for established beliefs.

I’ve noticed that it is particularly prevalent in organisations when people feel that they are being told what to do i.e. people feel they don’t have autonomy.

Dan Pink talks about autonomy as being one of the 3 things that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction.


immunity from arbitrary exercise of authority

One example could be if an organisation were to force a certain way of working on their employees without getting their input on it beforehand.

It’s highly likely the employees will start looking for reasons why the new way of working is worse than what they have.

Even if the management can very logically explain why it’s better they’re unlikely to make much headway because people will only see information which confirms their view that the old way is better.

Zaynab pointed out that a useful technique to avoid confirmation bias is to look at what you were trying to achieve in old way and see how you would do that with the new way. That way you lose nothing!

I think this approach only really works once the emotions of the change have calmed down a bit though.

Equally the management may be prone to confirmation bias since they have bought into the fact that the new way is better and may dismiss potentially valid feedback because it doesn’t fit with their belief system of how things should be.

I feel like confirmation bias is quite a natural human reaction to a situation like this so it’s useful to be aware of it if you’re having something forced onto you but also if you’re in a position of instigating some sort of organisational change.

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Written by Mark Needham

March 20th, 2011 at 6:08 pm