The Hidden Bias that Trips Up Leaders

Decision biases can negatively affect even the best church or business leader. Wikipedia lists almost 200 social, memory, or cognitive biases (I had to stop reading the list to keep from getting depressed). However, I’ve experienced one that I believe often trips leaders up. It’s called the confirmation bias. It’s a thinking bias that looks for information that supports our preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions. As a result, we spotlight only the information that supports the decision we want to make, to the neglect of other information we need in order to make the best decision. With Google, we can easily search out and find information that confirms almost any belief or decision. And, research tells us that the confirmation bias is strongest in the religious arena. So, how can leaders counter the confirmation bias?

Let’s say you are faced with a decision about whether or not to start a significant new ministry that you really, really want to start. How can you minimize the temptation to yield to the confirmation bias and avoid a wrong decision?

In Acts 16 the Apostle Paul gives us some clues from his second missionary journey. He needed to make a decision about the direction he and his team would travel, north, south or west. The four inputs below guided his decision making and can help us leaders minimize the confirmation bias.

Input 1: Subjective inner witness.

This input refers to what we sense in our heart… God’s leading, a peace, a pull toward a certain direction, that feeling of rightness after we pray over an issue. Paul initially planned to take his journey south but the Bible says the Spirit kept him from going that direction. He then planned to go north. Again, the Spirit kept him from going that direction. Some scholars believe these closed doors point to a subjective inner witness in Paul’s heart. In both cases he may have simply felt a sense in his heart not to proceed. One caution on this one, though. Never make a significant decision based simply on how you feel. Feelings can be fickle. 

Input 2: Circumstances.

In Paul’s case, another possible reason scholars suggest for the two closed doors was Paul’s health. Sickness may have kept him from taking those routes. Luke, a doctor himself, joined the missionary party halfway through this journey which may clue us to this reason for the closed doors. God will use circumstances, both closed doors and open doors to direct us to His will and avoid the confirmation bias. When God closes doors, don’t force open another one. God often uses circumstances to say No or to say Go.

Input 3: Mental reflection.

This input refers to using your mind to think through your decision by collecting data and comparing options. Paul certainly must have thought about the closed doors. He used his mind to reflect over and think about what God was saying by keeping him from going in directions in which he initially thought he should go. So, analysis and data collection are important, but even in those cases we can cook the books by only collecting information that confirms what we want to do.

Input 4: Collaboration

Collaboration means that you invite wise people into your life who will tell you the truth to help you weigh your options. Although we think we want to hear the truth, often we really only want reassurance that we are making the right decision. Recall some American Idol contestants who sung horribly, yet would argue with the judges who told them the truth, that they sung horribly. With significant decisions, we need objectivity from others. In Paul’s case he had Silas, Timothy, and Luke with whom to dialogue.

The term devil’s advocate comes from a practice no longer used in the Catholic church. When an individual was up for canonization (to be made a saint) the church would appoint someone to argue against sainthood (the devil’s advocate). The practice ended in 1983 and since then canonization has occurred 20 times faster than in the earlier 20th century. So, perhaps you need to ask someone to be a graceful devil’s advocate to help you think of reasons why the decisions you want to make may not work. Think, ‘constructive disagreement,’ as Chip and Dan Heath write about in their book Decisive (a very good read). 

So, every leader must deal with the confirmation bias in decision making. The next next time you must make a weighty decision, consider this four inputs to minimize this bias.

What has helped you counter this bias?

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