Escaping the Confirmation Bias

In the wonderful world of pre-testing concepts and advertising territories, everyone in that viewing room has their own prior opinion of which one should “win”. As our innocent consumers offer up their pearls of wisdom on which idea would make them more likely to buy our brand of juice / car / handset, we only pick up on the bits we like:

“Did you hear how she said that this idea would grab her attention?” or “Remember that woman who thought this territory was patronising?”

Every time someone hears what they want to hear, they’ll turn around and give a smile and knowing nod to the rest of the group, as if to say “See, I told you this was the route which would immediately treble our sales overnight”.

This isn’t because we’re stupid or stubborn or lazy. It’s a natural tendency, and it has a name – the confirmation bias – and it’s one of the most widely prevalent biases in human reasoning.  We’ve developed this bias as a time-saving technique. It lets us start out with an instinctive hypothesis, and then we can just look for evidence to prove it, rather than disprove it (disproving is the proper scientific way of finding the truth, by the way).

When we’re observing a focus group, the confirmation bias makes us more likely to believe the responses which support our views and dismiss those which don’t, with a pinch of salt: “Yeah, but that was just a couple of people, everyone else loved it”.  The confirmation bias is why several people will view the exact same group, yet come out with very different conclusions: “Yeah I know that’s what it says in the debrief, but I was there and that’s definitely not the impression I got about this route”.

There’s a fundamental problem with pre-testing concepts and territories. The issue is that we’re testing everyone’s pet theories, instead of opening up our minds to solutions which no one in our small circle has thought of.

Which brings me to the chart pictured above, courtesy of the very wise Sophie Robbins, one of our NY colleagues who visited this week. The only way to broach the stuff we don’t know we don’t know –  and break free of the confirmation bias – is by going out into the field without a hypothesis to test.

It means talking to real people in the real world and letting the conversations naturally take their course, rather than steering people back to a discussion guide that we’ve decided contains the most important questions. Then maybe we will stumble upon some genuinely fresh insights and fresh territories– some of the many interesting angles which are out there, and we just don’t know we don’t know.

    • nick
    • January 29th, 2013


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