Believing is seeing…

Are you biased by what other people think?

Image courtesy of ©123rf/Oleg Kalina (adapted)

Image courtesy of ©123rf/Oleg Kalina (adapted)

Working with troubled children – or anyone else for that matter – demands objectivity.

Rumour, hearsay, reputations or second hand opinions have no place in our working world.

So what is bias and how do we avoid it?…


This is a guest post by my friend and colleague Alex Clapson of TalkWorks.


“The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening; the smaller the doubt, the smaller the awakening. No doubt, no awakening”   C.C. Chang
  • Has a colleague offered you their views of the service user/s in a case handover meeting?
  • During multi-agency meetings, are your opinions shaped by the appraisals of others?
  • Could advance information sharing be detrimental to our objectivity?

Objectivity is a hard thing to achieve…

The Greek Philosopher & Scientist, Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) is renowned as a careful, neutral, empirical scholar, yet numerous commentators have criticized Aristotle’s methods. For example: his selective use of data and being prepared only to accept information that reinforced his beliefs.

This became known as Confirmation Bias.  So what is it?

  • A psychological phenomenon – that explains why people tend to seek out information that confirms their existing opinions, whilst overlooking, or ignoring information that refutes their beliefs.
  • It is a systematic bias – that works relentlessly, and often subtly, to direct us towards a desired or pre-existing conclusion.
  • A false sense of confidence in our conclusions – we believe that we are following the available evidence and making judgments based upon this, when in fact we are leading the evidence.

Most people think they behave rationally, however, we are all susceptible to limitations in thinking, judgement and decision-making and, for the most part, we are completely unaware of it.

Image courtesy ©123rf/pockygallery

Image courtesy ©123rf/pockygallery

Confirmation Bias stems from several areas of cognition, including:

  • Memory
  • Perception
  • Feelings and
  • The misapplication of reasoning.

Where do these biases come from?

At some point in our evolutionary history biases were useful responses, helping us to make decisions with limited information. These became heuristics – easy, practical, off the cuff and off the shelf responses – useful if your only task for the day is survival and the speed of the decision is more important than accuracy.

Now we need to do more than just survive, rushed decision making can get us into trouble – sound decisions are required.

If you’ve recently changed your car, or are considering doing so, then you might recognise the following phenomena:

Say for example, a friend recommends a particular model or manufacturer to you. You then spend the evening reading about the vehicle and browsing pictures – you’ve now got an idea of the look and style of your chosen car.

The following day driving to work, you see not one, but two, three, four, five of the same model car travelling the other way – who’d have thought that there would be so many of these vehicles on the road at the same time? Of course, they were on the road the day before and the day before that, but you didn’t see them. Why? Because yesterday, you weren’t looking for them – they were just pieces of data whizzing by – today they are relevant & interesting to you, so you take notice of them.

Bias in practice…

Imagine presenting evidence in court and the service user’s barrister commences a series of questions to examine the perspective from which you made your assessment of their client. Might they reasonably ask what efforts were made to explore the more positive aspects of their client’s case?

Image courtesy of ©123rf/radiantskies

Image courtesy of ©123rf/radiantskies

Because confirmation bias compels us to ignore data that goes against our first impressions, we’re extremely sensitive to signs or indicators that support our initial take on situations.

If we are looking for bad behaviour, we will find it, conversely, look for positive traits and invariably they will be present too. We are hard-wired to defend our suppositions. The tendency to over simplify is deep grained in the human psyche.

Question: Why might we do this, when our training has taught us to tease out the truth, to examine all sides of an argument, to walk a few paces in another’s shoes to empathise from their viewpoint?

Answer: We like things that align with our view of the world and we like people who are like us and share our interests, to the extent that we search out things that agree with us, whilst ignoring conflicting information.

We know that it is possible for two people to interpret the same information differently depending on their world-view. Fitting the terrain to the map rather than the other way around. It is a short circuit way to stay away from things that may cause us harm. After all, if things are similar to things we already know and like, then they are probably okay, right?

How many of us return over and over again to the same restaurant, leisure or entertainment venue, holiday destination – it’s good to stick with what you know surely? But… this approach makes it difficult to let go of entrenched positions and might prevent us from seeing something totally new, important and which might shift our perspective.

A human trait…

Humans tend to be heavily influenced by the first piece of information offered when making decisions – this is the anchor. Sales and marketing people know all about this as they try to manipulate your purchasing choices. Subsequent choices are made by adjusting away from the initial anchor position. Raising our awareness of this tendency can help us to recognise when this might be getting in the way of impartiality or openness to new ideas and information in our social work practice.

Consider this simple scenario: You attend a Child Protection Case Conference and meet professionals from other agencies for the first time, only to discover that everyone else is wearing business clothes whilst you’re wearing casuals. On top of this, they observe a stain on your shirt or your dress. They may conclude that your outward appearance indicates a sloppy approach to your work and therefore pay less heed to your contributions. They will look for evidence in your behaviour and communication that will reinforce their first impressions of you. On the other hand, if the people that you meet see that you are well groomed, dressed appropriately and exude confidence, they are more likely to listen to your viewpoint.

Our brains are great at sifting out patterns in the available data and at making meaning to help us interpret the world. However, we are also experts at retrofitting information to support our hypotheses.

Check the mirror…

Once we learn about confirmation bias, it’s easy to see it in others, but more challenging to recognise it in ourselves. These biases impact upon our ability to practice effectively; they lead us to miss opportunities to view situations from other perspectives and therefore create flawed assessments.

Confirmation bias can be used to your advantage and to the advantage of those for whom you advocate.

For example: the knowledge that people’s views can be easily shaped, particularly by first impressions might heighten your awareness of the importance of focusing upon your early interactions with them, taking more time to consider the outcome you’re looking for and to plan the method of your interventions.

So now we know a little more about confirmation bias, are we less likely to be drawn in by fixed or limited amounts of information? Well, not necessarily… Knowing about the phenomena does not mean that you will be able to spot it all the time, but it does help.

Dealing with confirmation bias…

  • Reverse brainstorm

One effective method in tackling potential biases is called the Reverse Brainstorm:

If an accurate, thorough assessment is required in one of your cases, then ask the question – “What do I need to do to ensure that my assessment is completely inaccurate, flawed & biased?”

Image courtesy of ©123rf/iqoncept

Image courtesy of ©123rf/iqoncept

A detailed response to this question will help you to explicitly call out the pitfalls to ensure that you are not being misled in your information gathering towards your assessment.

Numerous Serious Case Reviews have highlighted the need for social workers to ask the awkward questions and always be thinking the unthinkable.

  • Don’t rush

When we are under time pressures to make decisions, we are more likely to suppress the available evidence and fall back into our biases. Ensuring that we have sufficient time to carefully consider and test our viewpoints will help to reduce the impact of unconscious biases.

  • Second opinion

Asking another professional to read our assessments and challenge our thinking can provide us with an opportunity to have our viewpoints appropriately tested.

Summary

So what have we learned about confirmation bias?

  • We see new situations with the biases of past experiences.
  • Only when we are open to viewpoints that do not fit our mental models can we make room for new learning and more effective practice.
  • In order to test our suppositions and challenge our assessments, we must take account of all the available evidence and differing perspectives to see if they stand-up.
  • Practicing in this way will help to continually improve our practice, and create a culture of making assessments robust enough to withstand the rigours of cross-examination.

Alex Clapson…

Image courtesy of ©TalkWorks

Image courtesy of ©TalkWorks

To contact Alex – click here.

To read more about TalkWorks training and development – click here.

To read his profile or connect with Alex on LinkedIn – click here.


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