Why is it so hard to change a person’s mind, even when they are wrong? I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that we humans are often irrational creatures, led by emotion and a strong desire to be right! This desire to be right is so strong, in fact, that we often resist facts and data to adhere to our own beliefs.
Psychologists have studied this confirmation bias for decades, and it is best defined as motivated reasoning theory. This simply means that at times, we are more motivated by goals or the desire to be right, than the truth.
In the classic example, a psychologist in the 1950s asked students from two Ivy League colleges to watch a film of a football game. The film featured a set of controversial officiating calls between teams from their respective schools. The students from each school were more likely to see the referees’ calls as correct when it favored their school than when it favored their rival. The researchers concluded that the students were more vested in having their team proved right and affirming their loyalties than whether the call was fair.
Over the years, I have attempted to control my own motivated reasoning bias. But this is hard, because it’s not as if an alarm goes off when it’s occurring. It’s subconscious, and if you could detect it easily, it wouldn’t happen at all. So, how do we combat this and actually embrace fact over beliefs?
The best way I have learned to deal with this bias in myself is to:
Be self aware. Accept the truth that this happens to us all. Simply being aware can help us recognize this bias may be occurring.
Ask for help. I ask those around me to “call me out” when they believe this is occurring (of course, I want permission to call them out as well).
Review history. Reviewing case studies of when this bias has harmed others can be a powerful reminder of what to avoid.
To help you on your journey to avoid motivated reasoning bias, let me share a story that has had immense impact on allowing me to keep this top of mind. Shortly after WWI, France decided they must prepare themselves for the potential of another war. The French Minster of War, Andre’ Maginot, knew with 100% certainty that the best defense was a system of bunkers, concrete fortifications, tank traps, machine gun post and various other fixed defensive structures. Maginot knew from his experience in WWI that trench warfare required strong defenses. And he was bound and determined to build a defensive structure that would prevent an attack from Germany. The defense structure, dubbed The Maginot Line, ran the entire length of the France-Germany border. Maginot believed that if Germany started an offense, French troops would occupy his defensive line and prevent the attack. In all his years of warfare, he was absolutely sure that he must prepare for a static, slow-moving effort by enemy forces. And a strong defensive line would best protect France. Maginot had his experience and his beliefs, and he was in charge. So, the French spent an obscene amount of money and time building the Maginot line. All of this – despite the advancements that were being made with fast moving vehicles, air warfare and the lessons that should have been learned from WWI – proved that trench warfare is ineffective. I guess he thought Germany would do the exact same thing they did in WWI, which ultimately led to their defeat. Maginot dismissed advice from his team, dismissed how new technologies would change warfare and even dismissed intelligence reports that outlined a different type of war. Maginot ignored all the facts and data – he was in charge, and he was right! Then, the Germans introduced a new style of combat – the Blitz greed. In short, they simply drove around the fixed fortifications France had built. Seriously, they just went around them and left the defenses in place – while taking over the rest of the France – and simply went around the Maginot line. Going up and around the line through Belgium and conquering France in about six weeks. See Kemp, Anthony (1988). The Maginot Line: myth and reality. Military Heritage Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-88029-243-6. Retrieved 26 April 2011. Example after example exist of people ignoring facts to their own detriment. AOL’s model, while very successful, never anticipated the rapid changes in their industry and how they would have to change their entire way of thinking to remain competitive. AOL was based on user fees and a misbelief that the internet would never be free to access. Blockbuster didn't understand the power of streaming videos, Kmart didn't…well, you get the point. Hindsight is always 20/20, but if you rely on good information and not just being right, you may be able to avoid past mistakes and begin to see better results.