Elephants and Algorithms: How to avoid the confirmation bubble

There’s a famous parable about six blind men and an elephant. Each of the men approach the elephant from a different angle, and, using only their sense of touch, discuss what they find. ‘It’s a rope’, says the man holding the tail. ‘No, it’s a tree branch’, says the one holding the trunk. The man holding the tusk thinks it’s a pipe, and on they go, disagreeing, until a king approaches and explains the elephant as a whole animal. The lesson, of course, is that they were all partially right – it’s just that each of them had access to a different part of the truth, and none of them, with only his own perspective, had the whole picture.

The reason this parable has been around for hundreds of years and been retold throughout numerous cultures, is that it contains a simple, powerful truth about human nature – we have a tendency to blindspots. We find ourselves viewing the world from a particular perspective, and tuning out voices that might conflict with that understanding. Yet there are a few simple things we can do to help correct for this tendency, and so be in the best position to see the true big picture and make the best decision in light of that.

One irony is that, though the internet has brought an era of unprecedented access to information and a plethora of perspectives, it has also brought powerful new ways of unconsciously reinforcing the perspectives we already have. The algorithms of google, news sites and social media all preference serving us up results that are most like what we have clicked on before – effectively creating a cycle of confirmation bias in the information we encounter.

Even in the media we consume, our kindle or netflix recommendations will reflect what we have purchased or watched in the past. We get an echo chamber of our own preferences, which can reinforce the already natural tendency towards confirmation bias.

So why does the confirmation bubble even matter?

If we limit the type of information reaching us, and allow ourselves to live within a ‘confirmation bubble’ whereby we repeatedly receive information and opinions that reinforce our own, we invite several limitations into our lives and our thinking:

1. We limit our ability to empathise with those whose lives differ from our own

2. We limit our ability to embrace and grapple with the complexity of issues and situations, and therefore limit the depth of our understanding and insights

3. We limit our ability to learn and grow in our thinking and decision-making

4. We limit our ability to identify flaws or shortcomings in our own beliefs and understanding

5. We limit our ability to influence and lead others. As Dr. Henry Cloud says in ‘Integrity‘, “if we don’t feel that someone knows what it is like to be us, what they say has little credibility”

 

What can we do about guarding against the confirmation bubble?

1. Recognise

Simply be aware of what’s happening in your news feeds and recommendation list, and how algorithms will be trying to send you ‘more of what you like’. Not letting the confirmation bubble build up unconsciously is the first step.

2. Read!

Read authors whose perspectives differ from your own. If you are a person of faith, read a really top-notch atheist writer. If you are a western, caucasian male, read something written by a woman of colour, or an author from the developing world. If you are politically liberal, read a really articulate conservative author. Go out of your way to find people who have experienced life ‘from a different side of the elephant’. If you struggle to fit reading into your busy schedule, here are four ways to read more even when you’re busy.

3. Research Reality

Find ways to come face to face with reality through ‘primary research’. That might mean gathering actual research data through surveys or focus groups of your customers, your employees or your target audience. This kind of hard data can be incredibly illuminating in aspects of your reality you may have completely overlooked, and even in conflicting with your own underlying assumptions.

But research can also take other forms. Travel – if done with an openness to engage with local people and culture – can be a kind of research that takes us into new realities we haven’t experienced before. So too can open dialogue with those who disagree with us. One great example of this was when investment guru Warren Buffett invited trader Doug Kass, a vocal critic of his investment style, who was personally betting against his company’s stock, to participate in Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting – a sure way to help guard against organisational ‘bubble bias’.

4. Reflect

Finally, take the time to reflect on the variety of information and perspectives you are taking in. Ask yourself questions. What assumptions aren’t being challenged? Where are there some flaws in the logic, or conflicting pieces of ‘evidence’? What perspectives are you not hearing from, and which might you be interested in exploring further?

 

We can end up in a ‘confirmation bubble’ easily – a result of human nature and internet algorithms. But by being just a little bit deliberate, we can increase our ability to effectively think, lead and make truly informed decisions.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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