While at our cottage in Ontario, Canada this summer, my wife and I had the pleasure of watching hummingbirds zooming around our property. They fly so fast they can be hard to see. We wanted to see them up close. I remembered that in the garage there was a hummingbird feeder that was left behind by the previous owners. We cleaned it up and my wife was going to make a sugar mix. However, our kids had purchased a packet of official hummingbird food at the local store, so we used it. The food was in powder form and we mixed it with water. The water was bright red, just like it showed on the package. We proudly hung it on the limb of a tree near our house so we could watch it from inside the kitchen. We had other bird feeders in the same tree, which were covered up with birds of all sizes … plus a couple of naughty squirrels. For the next week, we did not see one hummingbird at the feeder. We did notice them zoom by, but we were never able to really see them. We returned to Texas with not a single good view of a hummingbird.
Read on and learn,
- What do Hummingbirds have to do with cognitive bias?
- What is ‘confirmation bias’?
- What are the consequences?
Attracting Hummingbirds at Home
Once home, we made a wonderful discovery. Several hummingbirds were active in a flower bed in front of our house. They were also very fast in flight, but would linger on flower blooms long enough for us to get a good look at them. We could even take photos and videos. We noticed these hummingbirds were smaller than those we had seen in Canada, but so were some of the other birds. The Blue Jays in Canada look just like the ones in Texas, except they are much larger. Maybe that is because they are getting ready for the cold winters?
The color of our hummingbirds was brown. We could not remember seeing other brown hummingbirds, so of course we went inside and searched on Google. There were many beautiful, colorful photos of hummingbirds. But, none matched the size and color of ours. The few that were somewhat similar in appearance were from the west coast, mostly California. Nothing near Texas. We wondered if we had discovered something new. Maybe we should edit the photos and send them to the Audubon Society?
The next day, my wife called. She was laughing so hard. As she was looking more closely at the photos we had taken of our hummingbirds, she noticed the legs did not look quite right. The angle was not what she would expect. Then upon closer inspection, she noticed a set of hind legs. It turns out our hummingbirds were moths. Once again, Google was used. There is quite a large section on moths that look like hummingbirds. The photos of moths on the website looked just like our “hummingbirds!”
Perhaps you have heard of confirmation bias, a type of cognitive bias. The definition is:
noun: 1. the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
My story of the hummingbird is a classic example. My wife and I were outside working in our yard near this flowerbed. One of us noticed this activity on the blooms and called it a hummingbird. From that point on, the confirmation bias was in place. Our comments and observations all reinforced our belief that we were looking at a hummingbird. As happens with confirmation bias, other evidence or inputs were dismissed or ignored. Discovery of the mistake happened long after the fact. In this case, nothing bad happened. The worst that could have happened is that I called the Audubon Society to report this new discovery, only to be referred to a back-office desk that handles “goofballs who cannot tell the difference between a bird and an insect.”
Consequences Can Be Severe
The consequences, however, of confirmation biases are often more severe. I have observed bad business strategies that were based on confirmation biases destroy millions of dollars in shareholder value. Confirmation biases often contribute to accidents and injuries. Further, confirmation biases have been a big contributor to major environmental mishaps and industrial disasters.
Confirmation biases, like many of the cognitive biases, cannot be controlled through additional training and tighter processes. While this seems obvious, most companies are still hoping their management processes and training will do the trick. It will not. It’s too bad, since innocent people are continue to be killed and maimed by incidents caused by confirmation biases. Damage to the environment is also massive, e.g., impact on the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There are many other such examples related to chemical plants, exploration sites, pipelines, and refineries. When these disasters occur, the companies are in shock. Something they thought could never happen just happened. After initial response to the crisis, companies begin the task of investigating what happened…getting to the root cause. Predictably, the answer is to blame individual workers for not following procedures. The predictable solution then put forward is to fire the individuals (if still alive), rewrite the already complex process, and install new technology. Rarely is there awareness or examination of the role cognitive biases played in causing the incident. Often cognitive biases were at the heart of the cause, but were ignored since cognitive biases are not easily understood or tangible.
Fortunately, the moths that were so cleverly disguised as hummingbirds did not cause injuries or capital damage to my home. Too often, we are not so fortunate in business settings, where the potential consequences of confirmation biases can be much more severe.
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