The UK news headlines at the moment are full of the EU Referendum, where UK voters will decide if they want to remain as part of the EU, or leave. At the moment there are three camps:
• Committed to leaving
• Committed to staying
In terms of news bulletins, there is very little to separate the Leave or Remain voters. Publically, both sides are convinced that they are ‘right’, both are punctuating their arguments with facts that support their position and deriding their opponents. In fact, what we are seeing from both sides is a spectacular demonstration of confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is selective thinking where you only consider things that confirm your belief, whilst at the same time ignoring or undervaluing anything that contradicts your belief. So, there are truths on both sides of the ‘debate’ that simply get lost in the rhetoric because neither side wants to concede that the other might have a ‘good point’. Lets also acknowledge that many people on both sides have made carefully considered decisions in which they have properly considered both sides of the case.
Then we have the undecided. They say the arguments are too complex. They comment that it is difficult to decide between the opinions of the so called ‘big hitters’ on either side. They report that information is very hard to come by when asked for comments in news reports.
Can you really accept these as a reasonable argument? Firstly, there is more data than you care to know – if you simply look for it. The Office of National Statistics publishes a raft of information about all aspects of UK life. Some examples:
• There are just over 31 million people of working age with jobs.
• 25% of adults who are able to work, do not work for some reason.
• The UK unemployment figure today is just over 1.6 m people.
• Approximately 7% of the UK workforce consists of EU nationals (which is 2.2m people).
So in a short period of time, we can see that if there were no EU nationals working in the UK, we would have a shortage of 500,000 people to do jobs that are currently undertaken. This is an observation not a statement on either Leave or Remain. A gap of 500,000 can be dealt with so doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem. The point is it leads to critical thinking that informs better decision making. The alternative, as we can see, is that it is “too hard”. Instead of taking responsibility for their indecision, in terms of doing something about it, they opt out as “undecided”.
We will have experienced this type of behaviour many times in everyday life.
So why is confirmation bias a problem?
Someone has to be ‘wrong’, by definition. For the EU Referendum this is going to be a headache in the aftermath of the vote. So much vitriol has been exchanged, you have to wonder how the country will come together again afterwards.
In refusing to consider things that oppose your thinking, you risk weakening the outcome. You make better decisions when you are informed and deal with the inconvenient facts or thinking. After all, with important decisions, you wouldn’t flip a coin would you?
It is another way of saying “blinkered thinking”. We all know this is unhealthy. Ultimately when we refuse to consider valid alternatives, we often come to regret our hastiness later.
Consequently confirmation bias allows us to de-commit from the discussion – it doesn’t matter how good a point you make, I am not listening. As New Scientist commented in their 4 June edition, that the Referendum will be:
How the most irrational vote ever will be decided.
So we can expect people will influenced by feelings and biases that have nothing to do with the issues at stake. If this were your business and you were making a critical business decision, would you make it this way?
So what can we conclude?
Indecision can be a good thing. However this is only true when it makes you find out what you need to know to make a decision. When making important decisions, ask yourself if you are simply confirming a pre-conceived bias (something we are all prone to) and need to dig further, or if you are genuinely weighing up all of the pertinent aspects of the decision good and bad.
Indecision without action is abrogating your responsibility. In the EU Referendum, are people undecided because there is a genuine lack of information or is it because they simply can’t be bothered to find out? Always remember, choosing not to choose is of itself a choice and we are ultimately responsible for the choices we make.
Remember, no one is 100% wrong. When we ignore the truth in other people’s arguments, we discount them as individuals. In a business context, this can be a disaster for teamwork and can cause you to ignore critical elements that might otherwise have changed your thinking for the better. Also remember that there comes a time when you have to commit, so don’t prevaricate as this can cause its own issues.
If you want to succeed, do you need to change your thinking or your decision making? Most innovation and positive change occurs because people critically question ‘perceived’ wisdom…
P.S. The point to this post is not the EU Referendum, but about what we can learn about the human condition from it. Noting it is a real time event playing out around us now, so is something from which we can learn.