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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

#25 - "Disconfirmation Bias" and other decision-making aids

When joking recently about our decision-making process, we came across the term “disconfirmation bias”.

It’s defined as “The tendency to accept supportive evidence of a belief uncritically, but to actively refute or discount evidence that challenges that belief.”

There are many areas of the human sphere that are susceptible to disconfirmation bias.

I have to work hard to keep this decision-impairing tendency in check. For example, my wife and I were shopping for a new home recently. I was quick to point out deficiencies in building sites that I didn’t like while subsequently minimizing those same deficiencies in the sites that I favored. We do this all the time when evaluating the merits / flaws of people we like vs. those we may be prejudiced against.

To avoid wandering too far into controversial territory, perhaps we should just stick to the workplace. Have you seen evidence of disconfirmation bias in your workplace process?

The strength of beliefs is generally revealed in the context of proposed or implemented changes. When the situation is statically in our favor, our beliefs about the situation are somewhat idle. Not necessarily dormant, just not strongly enacted. Like a car engine that is on, but not yet in gear. But when a change is proposed by others, or when we are the ones proposing the change, beliefs and values are inevitably challenged.

It isn’t the challenges per se that pose the problem. It’s how we react to them that reveals our true inclination. Are we biased in our refuting and accepting of relevant evidence?

At Nova, we make analyzers for gases such as oxygen, hydrogen, methane, etc. There are numerous components that are incorporated into the design of an analyzer, whether it is a little portable monitor, or a large on-line continuous analyser. If an impaired decision-making process were to result in a misguided design, in most cases it would not be cause for life-threatening concern.

My wife recently brought some work home with her. She was doing some literature research into post-operative care of cardiac surgery patients. The focus of her work was proper protocol on sternal incision care after heart surgery. I don’t claim to understand all of the research, but it was amazing to see how much disconfirmation bias she found in situations that are much more critical to people’s lives than gas analyzers. Accepted medical practice in this situation had been sustained for decades based only on tradition rather than evidence-based research. Her findings, when presented to her cardiac staff, stimulated much discussion and proposals for protocol change.

After thinking about that situation, I didn’t feel quite so embarrassed about the occasional gaffe here at Nova. After all, a valve or a pump in a gas analyzer can be fixed. The customer can be trained to calibrate semi-regularly. While the valves in the human heart can be fixed if necessary, it’s best not to have bias in this field of practice. (This whole episode scared me into exercising more regularly.)

So be on the lookout for this now. With a cool name like “disconfirmation bias”, it will probably be the next big thing.

We’re Nova. We make gas analyzers for oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen, and other gases.

Give Mike or Dave at Nova a call, or send us an e-mail.
sales at nova-gas dot com
websales at nova-gas dot com

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