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Confirmation Bias

Here's a little test: Pictured to the right are four cards. Each card contains a letter on one side, and a number on the other. Which cards must you turn over to prove the following statement false? "If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side."

Researchers Peter Wason and Philip Johnson-Laird gave a similar test to 128 college-educated subjects in 1972. The most frequently given answer was "A and 4," (46 percent), with "only A" the second most popular (33 percent). Only 5 percent gave the correct answer, which is "A and 9."

It's fairly obvious that you must turn over the A-card: if there is an odd number on the other side of the card, you have proven the statement false. The popular tendency is to also turn over the 4-card to see if there is a vowel on the other side. However, the statement does not say an even-numbered card cannot have a consonant. For the same reason, turning over the S-card proves nothing, since the statement makes no claims about cards with consonants. On the other hand, turning over the 9-card and finding a vowel proves the statement false.

Why does this test fool so many people? The answer is a common act of reasoning called confirmation bias. Research shows that most people prefer confirming something rather than proving something wrong. Therefore, we gravitate toward confirming our beliefs--even when our task is to disprove something. (By turning over the 4-card we're trying to find further confirmation of the statement.) In the process, we make some flawed assumptions.

Let's look at a real-life example. Maybe your organization is struggling with high employee turnover. The popular explanation is that employees are leaving hoping to earn more money elsewhere. Confirmation bias would lead us to implement a solution in which we attempt to prove that theory, such as raising salaries across the board, or making counter offers to resigning workers. But what if we employ falsification instead? What if we look for a solution by proving the common belief wrong, instead of confirming it? By doing so, we might discover some bigger reasons that employees are leaving.

Learning to ignore those inner voices and preconceptions that compel you to prove something right opens you to tremendous problem-solving opportunities.
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