Resistance to new knowledge: the big mistake some smart people make



“The sad reality is that human beings tend to resist taking on new knowledge, if it contradicts their existing views and beliefs. The phenomenon, which psychologists call the confirmation bias, was noted by Francis Bacon almost four hundred years ago:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.” – Steve Denning

Many experiments by psychologists have confirmed the existence of the confirmation bias.

Part One – Confirmation of Confirmation Bias

*Charles G. Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper, Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1979, Vol. 37, No. 11, 2098-2109

People who hold strong opinions on complex social issues are likely to examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner. They are apt to accept “confirming” evidence at face value while subjecting “discontinuing” evidence to critical evaluation, and as a result to draw undue support for their initial positions from mixed or random empirical findings.

Thus, the result of exposing contending factions in a social dispute to an identical body of relevant empirical evidence may be not a narrowing of disagreement but rather an increase in polarization. To test these assumptions and predictions, subjects supporting and opposing capital punishment were exposed to two purported studies, one seemingly confirming and one seemingly disconfirming their existing beliefs about the deterrent efficacy of the death penalty.

As predicted, both proponents and opponents of capital punishment rated those results and procedures that confirmed their own beliefs to be the more convincing and probative ones, and they reported corresponding shifts in their beliefs as the various results and procedures were presented. The net effect of such evaluations and opinion shifts was the postulated increase in attitude polarization.

Part Two – 5 Ways to Overcome Confirmation Bias

Alli Worthington – – suggests:

Be aware it exists. Understanding your inclination towards a particular thought process can help you recognize it when it happens. Just like I’m aware of my own tendency to work too much, I also try to be conscious of my tendency to fall for the confirmation bias.

Make a conscious decision to challenge any of your preconceptions. From a political stance to your favorite colour…spend time turning around issues in your head and play devil’s advocate. Question your ideas. Instead of assuming your next business project is brilliant, actually test your ideas.

Make decisions empirically. That gut instinct serves you very well, but when important decisions are in front of you, default to the data. Trust (your gut), but verify (with data).

Get an outside opinion with no personal vested interest in the outcome. Like hard and fast data, a neutral opinion can be an eye-opener. This is a huge reason business consultants are brought in to help teams make the right decisions. A business consultant’s opinion should not be clouded by a vested interest in specific outcomes, the focus should be on what is the best business decision for the company.

Be open to opinions that disagree. And by that I mean allow others to disagree with you; nothing fosters Confirmation Bias more than surrounding yourself with yes-[people].

Sometimes the most successful people suffer confirmation bias the most because they are never challenged. You don’t want to be the CEO who becomes the emperor who has no clothes.


I would add:

Be prepared.

Often people who are challenged retaliate with anger and insults, don’t join the game.

Are not aware of conflict bias.

Are unable to question their preconceptions or question their ideas.

Rely on gut instinct not empirical data – I am right, you are wrong because I say so.

Resist finding an independent opinion about what is disagreed.

Only want to be surrounded by yes-people.



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