Confirmation bias: Wild elephants, tired gorillas

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Why do people believe astronomers when they claim there are 400 billion stars, and yet the same people check when you say the paint is wet in a public park bench? Is this an integrity or credibility issue? The obvious and simple answer, of course is the fact that anyone can indeed check the facts by merely touching the bench, but not, if you try to count the stars in the Milky Way.

Prejudice is really a great time saver. It allows one to form an opinion while ignoring the facts. The same thing is true in our religious beliefs. This brings me to tell you this story: There was a popular religious leader teaching his followers in the jungles of India. Devotees from around the country came to hear his teachings—that which most people considered reality was only an illusion.

During one of his discourses, his lecture was stampeded by a herd of wild elephants. He and his followers immediately climbed trees to protect themselves from imminent bodily harm, if not death. As they gathered composure and returned to their teachings, one doubting follower asked the religious master why, if the elephants were only illusions and not real, the religious leader joined the rest of the group climbing up trees.

The teacher’s answer was a question: “What elephants are you talking about?”

In psychology, the nearest buzzword explanation to this is “confirmation bias”—the tendency of people to source, discover, read, and analyze information that confirms their beliefs, even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. We manifest this bias when we gather information and interpret it in a biased way. Confirmation bias happens because many of us are afraid to be proven wrong, even in the face of neutral and scientific facts.

Recently, this came to me again when I tried without much success to convince several colleagues not to give a certain award to a candidate, simply because he barely made it when compared to the established criteria. And yet, my colleagues stood their ground on the belief that this person could help us promote our advocacy, never mind that we throw the rules in the trash can.

My questions were overly clear and succinct: “Can you guarantee it? Do we have convincing proof in the past when our past decisions confirm this belief?” The answer was a deafening silence that I can’t help asking the question: “If you’re going to shoot a mime, would you still use a silencer?”

I could not believe that people who are holding key executive positions in their respective organizations can make a foolish decision like it. So, OK, personally I’m not a charismatic person like Masaaki Imai. But I have an amplifier like this column which is popular enough to serve as my sounding board. Really, I like writing articles because it gives me the platform to air my grievance in public.

For now, however, that mystery remains unsolved. Wild elephants may come and go, and still people can’t see it happen. Even as you read this article, another herd could be clustering ominously around us. It is a chilling thought, and until the authorities come up with a plan of action, I am urging everybody to take the sensible precaution of developing an anti-confirmation bias.

These people who are seriously afflicted with confirmation bias are fast turning into zombies. Some of them have turned out to be man-made objects like weather balloons or satellites that float in the air. And some choose to remain not to explain their action. The mainstream management community tends to believe these are probably some phenomena that could, with sufficient valid information, be identified with something that borders on immorality, if not illegality.

And so I’m now being unfairly aged by people who don’t share my dynamic views. But never mind, as long as my views are documented in black and white, I don’t mind being overruled by fools and jerks. Only time will tell that I was not part of it all. In due time, I will have the last laugh to say: “See, that’s what I’ve told you before.”

I will continue to fight confirmation bias and their followers. After all, persistence is like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you get tired. You quit when the gorilla gets tired. (MT 10-21-13)

Rey Elbo is a business consultant on human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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