Kristin Raack, Principal at AltruNext, was recently featured as a guest author about how to avoid confirmation bias. The full article was originally published by Grant Professionals Association on GrantProfessionals.org and reprinted here with their permission.
If you asked, I’d claim to be an objective person—someone willing to listen to divergent points of view. But no matter what you say, I will never believe that cats are better than dogs. Similarly, I’m inclined to keep my money in underperforming investments because I believe in the company. I think my kids are amazing even after they make poor choices. I’m more likely to forgive my preferred political party and look at the other party’s messages with more scrutiny.
And I know that I am not alone. The reality is that your brain also tends to believe evidence and facts that align with your existing beliefs.
It’s called “confirmation bias,” an issue that affects every single human being.
Confirmation bias is our tendency to remember, accept, or interpret information in a way that supports our existing beliefs. Every time we encounter a situation that confirms our ideas, our conviction gets stronger, and we’re more inclined to remember this evidence over dissenting information. Frankly, it’s easier for our brains to stick with what we already know. Cognitive dissonance takes a toll, and our brains prefer an easy way out. Plus, it enhances our self-esteem to find evidence that our opinions have merit. Therefore, even idealistic, good-hearted nonprofit folks remain vulnerable to confirmation bias.
This human tendency impacts how we understand the news, medical advice, social media posts, political events, and even information in our work as grant professionals.
I suspect you may find evidence of confirmation bias impacting how you go about your job activities. It may look like this:
Assuming the program evaluations support your belief that the organization is doing good work with a clear impact.
Developing the grant strategy alone because your colleagues haven’t been helpful in the past and you don’t think they’ll be helpful now.
Experiencing frustration with your board because you believe they don’t have your back or do enough to support your fundraising efforts.
Asking a question that presumes or guides the person toward your preferred (or “correct”) answer.
Believing that success requires competition with other nonprofits because you’ve always held to a “scarcity mindset.”
Using biased search terms in your needs statement research that leads to sources that align with your thinking rather than a fuller picture of the truth.
While it’s normal to struggle with confirmation bias, we can proactively choose to question this tendency. Here’s how to begin:
Be aware. Simply acknowledging that we all have this propensity fosters humility and openness. Look for signs that you’re too quick to assume things.
Get curious. Ask questions of yourself (about your beliefs and assumptions), of the data, of other people, etc. When information calls into question your beliefs, take the time to dig deeper with questions.
Test the “other side.” Try to make a case for the other side of an issue—the opposite of the view that you currently ascribe to. See if you can identify where your beliefs are not well-supported by the data.
Seek different perspectives. Listen to diverse views from friends, colleagues, news sources, and the like.
Implementing this type of approach into your day-to-day interactions will help you to see the factors influencing your organization or community more clearly, increase your ability to adapt to change, and make better informed decisions. It will even make you a more ethical grant professional.
How have you noticed confirmation bias in your work life? In your personal life? What are ways that you’ve found to successfully counter confirmation bias?