Confirmation bias, or the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories is running rampant in our society today, particularly fueling our political debates online. Pick any news story and those on the left will only see data that supports their position and people on the right will only see data that supports theirs. But what about marketing? What about creativity? What about our relationships with our agencies? Could invisible forms of confirmation bias be holding us back in these areas? I think it’s quite possible. Here’s how.
Confirmation bias destroys innovation.
Confirmation bias is not taught or socialized, but something ingrained in our nature. While it seems on the surface to be an entirely irrational behavior, researchers believe it’s the result of evolutionary design. Regardless, what’s clear is that confirmation bias is the antithesis of creativity.
Confirmation bias is the force we apply to our reality to maintain it, keep it from changing and make us feel better for it. A fresh, new idea, on the other hand, can’t be “confirmed” because it doesn’t exist yet. Worse, a fresh, new idea can threaten one’s perception of reality. If it doesn’t, then it’s probably not a good idea, right?
Think about the potential for confirmation bias in our marketing world.
- Reviewing fresh, new creative campaigns that we’ve never seen before, have never done before and are not part of our brand’s reality today.
- Reviewing campaign results that may conflict with our personal, emotional views of that campaign.
- Political infighting between internal silos–e.g. the outside agency vs the in-house agency creatives vs the product marketers vs the brand managers vs the sales force–each is looking for data that pleases the C-suite. Each will unknowingly deploy confirmation bias to incoming data.
- Professional and personal bias to project positive momentum in one’s career. Conflicting data here hurts and is easily ignored.
And that’s just on the client side. Let’s look at the potential pitfalls for agencies.
- Agencies in my experience tend to think the relationships they have with their clients is better than it is. Confirmation bias in typical agencies is like a thick psychosis, almost visible in the C-suite hallways. Agency leaders feed on optimism and can’t help but dwell on and remember the positive data–good meetings, good work, a good result–and dismiss the negative data–bad meetings, bad work, a bad result–all of which only contribute to their inaccurate, biased, overly positive construct.
- Worse, as in astronomically worse, typical agencies who believe they have a stronger relationship with their client than they have are less likely to push for innovation, new ideas, and more likely to stay the course on any given account. New ideas, new directions, new campaigns, new anything is risky when the relationship is perceived to be good, which it always is. Note: no agency will ever admit this is true, but I believe this confirmation bias results in business getting put up for review. Why? The client wants fresh thinking.
The question is, what do we do about it.
Confirmation bias is a dragon, so slay it.
The first step in dealing with confirmation bias is to admit it’s there. All the time. And it’s likely affecting our decision-making on a daily, if not hourly basis. So being aware of it might just loosen its reigns on us. Have a meeting with your team and talk about it, see if anyone admits to any.
Next, face your current world views in the marketing space and question them. Or at least allow them to be questioned. Let’s face it, if you think back on all the world views you’ve had over your lifetime, how many have held absolutely true? As for me, my world views have changed massively since being a naive college student, as they should. Views about the world in general as well as views about the advertising business. So to the degree that it’s possible always question your world views, as they relate to marketing and your job (I don’t care about your politics).
Allow scary questions. Is the campaign you’ve been running for five years really that inflexible or are are you just applying your confirmation bias? Could it be that the results you’re seeing are down because the campaign you love just isn’t cutting it? Is it possible that it truly is the incredible efforts of the sales team and not the ad campaign that’s leading to the great quarter you’re having? And could it be that a personal, professional set-back doesn’t have to be a momentum killer if you are honest about it, address it and move on?
And, agencies, if I were you, I would assume every client relationship you have is on the rocks and behave accordingly. Take your confirmation bias and stomp on it, grind it into the carpet and assume the worst. A healthy dose of wild paranoia will put a stake in the heart of your confirmation bias and lead to longer, healthier relationships.
While we won’t be changing the dogmatic fixtures of confirmation bias in our politics anytime soon, we can at least address our own as it relates to marketing. Let our bias now be trained against confirmation bias.