Episode 102: Confirmation Bias

Have you ever ordered dinner in a restaurant, and after telling the waiter your order they comment “Good choice!”. How did it make you feel? Did you begin looking forward to your meal a little more, knowing that your choice was a “good” one? If so, you’re not alone. 


When taking a risk, making a choice, or buying a product, people love to hear that their decision was a good one. So much so, that they’ll ignore information that directly conflicts with this belief.

Why? It’s an example of a psychological phenomenon known as Confirmation Bias.

In this episode, we’ll explore the behavioral science of Confirmation Bias, and talk about how we can use it to our advantage in business, marketing, and experience design.


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Episode Transcript

0:00:01.3 Jennifer Clinehens: This week on Choice Hacking.


0:00:04.6 Greg Fishel: I was only looking for information to support what I already thought and was not interested in listening to anything contrary. And so I woke up one morning and there was this question in my mind about, "Greg, are you engaging in confirmation bias? Are you only looking for information to support what you already think?" And if I was honest with myself, and I tried to be, I admitted that that was going on. And so the more I talk to scientists and read peer-reviewed literature, it became very difficult for me to make the argument that we weren't at least having some effect, maybe there was still a doubt as to how much, but to say nothing was not a responsible thing for me to do as a scientist or a person.

0:00:53.0 JC: That's one of the United States top TV meteorologists, Greg Fishel, talking about how he changed his mind about climate change. You see, he was a climate change skeptic at first, and stubbornly refused to change his mind because all of the evidence he was digging up confirmed what he had already decided, that man-made climate change did not exist. But after taking a step back, Greg realized he might be a victim of confirmation bias, a cognitive bias that makes people search for evidence that supports what they already think and dismisses evidence that doesn't fit their established worldview.

0:01:28.2 JC: I'm Jennifer Clinehens, and you're listening to Choice Hacking, a podcast about applying behavioral science and psychology to business marketing, experience design, and more. Join me today as we examine confirmation bias and how it guides customer behavior, opinions, thoughts and choices.


0:01:52.4 JC: But before we get started, let's give a shout-out to the company who's bringing you this podcast today, Audible. Now, if you're like me, you love audio, podcast, radio shows and audiobooks, and now more than ever, audio content is becoming a way to learn, connect and entertain. Check out choicehacking.com/audible to get your free 30-day trial of Audible Plus.

0:02:14.4 JC: Personally, I'm loving listening to The Martian by Andy Weir, narrated by Wil Wheaton. And that's right, I am the last person on earth who hasn't read, watched or listened to The Martian, and I'm really enjoying it so far. If you're a fan of science fiction or the survival genre, as I sometimes am, I highly recommend it. And don't forget, you can get exclusive and ad-free episodes of the Choice Hacking podcast when you become a member. For only $7.99 a month or $79.99 a year, you'll get access to subscriber only and ad-free episodes, exclusive content, online courses, webinars, a quarterly book club, and more. Check out choicehacking.com/subscribe for more details. Now, on with the show.


0:03:05.9 JC: Picture this, you're in a restaurant on a first date, you're already nervous. If you're like me, you're wondering if the outfit you picked out looks good and if there's something in your teeth, or if your hair is doing that thing it sometimes does when it's really humid outside. You read the menu, lots of things looked delicious, but you know that ordering food on a date is a tight rope. Spaghetti? Too saucy and you're wearing a white shirt, you're way too messy for that. The steak? Oh, no, didn't your date say they were a vegetarian? You can't do that. What about the special? That sounded like it might be okay, right? Okay, sure. Let's try that. Next thing you know, the waiter comes back and you ordered the special.


0:03:50.8 JC: Now, what do you want the waiter to say after your order? "Oh, man, you're really gonna regret that," or "Good choice. The special is one of the best things I've ever had here, particularly good for a date," he says with a wink. Probably the second one, why? Because when you make a choice, you take a chance, and for businesses, it pays to understand that at this moment of decision, people crave a pat on the back, they want to hear confirmation that their decision, their thinking, and ultimately they are right. And when they hear that from a business, they become more engaged and more bonded to the experience. And that's the power of confirmation bias at work. When your customers make a choice, they've done it for a variety of reasons, but regardless of why, they've made a decision and they're looking for information that confirms their decision was the right one.


0:04:47.9 JC: A company that takes advantage of confirmation bias in this moment is Mailchimp, the email service provider. Now, full disclosure, I use Mailchimp, and a lot of the reason I do is because of how fun and engaging their experience is. In particular, after you send an email, an animation of a tiny monkey paw appears and gives you a virtual high five. But why is it so powerful? As Aarron Walter, Director of User Experience at MailChimp put it, "I became a Mailchimp customer in 2005, and I knew the feeling of sending out a campaign and being totally stressed out about it, because once you send an email, you can't really suck that back in. I just always thought someone should come into my office and high five me right now." It's this insight in the customer's mindsets that spawned a gif of an animated monkey giving users a high five. The gif appears right after customers have sent an email and taken a huge risk. And at that moment, people need confirmation that they've made the right choice, and that's exactly what Freddie, Mailchimp's cartoon monkey mascot, gives them.


0:05:57.9 JC: Now, no discussion about confirmation bias is complete without mentioning the dark side of this bias. It can be a great tool to make people feel good about your business and the experience they just had, or it can create situations where users never see the information that contradicts what they already believe and that can be a big problem. The most pertinent example at the moment is social media feeds and the algorithms that drive them. They're notorious for helping people unconsciously double down on confirmation bias.


0:06:30.1 JC: So when users only like, share or comment on a certain kind of information from sources they like, because those sources already confirm what they believe, many algorithms will say, Hey, we notice you're really into a certain type of news, and we want you to engage more so we're gonna show you more of the same type of biased news. Eventually the cycle of confirmation bias and algorithms that suggest more of the same kind of content can create what's known as a filter bubble. Now, that term was coined by an internet activist, Eli Pariser. It describes a state of intellectual isolation that allegedly can result from the combination of searches, content selection and algorithms that wanna guess what information a user wants to see based off of those actions. Now, once that happens, a user can become separated from information that disagrees with their views and isolates them in these so-called filter bubbles. So as you can see, it really pays to consider the implications and ethics of how we apply confirmation bias, the context in which we're confirming, and the extent to which we show users information that they agree with.


0:07:49.2 JC: The darker aspects of confirmation bias's side, if we wanna apply confirmation bias in a customer journey, the best place to do that is after a customer has made a decision or purchase. Now that's because confirmation bias can be used to create positive memories of an experience. Why are post-purchase moments so powerful? It's down to a behavioral science principle known as the peak-end rule. That's right, we've introduced more than one behavioral science principle in this podcast episode. Now, this rule states that people judge an experience based on how they felt at the peak and the end, but not the average of every moment of the experience. When customers have better memories of an experience, they're more likely to recommend and repeat it. And one of the critical things to keep in mind here is that any time a user or a customer makes a decision, they take a risk. It might be a small risk, like whether or not to buy a sweater that's on sale, or it might have higher stakes like a new house, a new car, or even what college to attend. And when your customers take that risk, they don't wanna hear that they're wrong, they don't wanna get the keys to their new car and hear the salesman say, "What a beautiful blue. Of course, most people prefer the red." No, no, they don't wanna hear that, they want to hear, "What a beautiful blue car. Some people prefer it in red, but I think this model looks best in the blue. Good decision."

0:09:14.3 JC: So know and understand the two sides of confirmation bias, consider where in your customer journey people are taking risks and making decisions. Just like Mailchimp and their furry high five, look for the moments where customers might be nervous about a decision, look for opportunities to give them a little pat on the back, through overt or more subtle messages that tell them they've just made a socially accepted, healthy or otherwise good choice. And most importantly, ask yourself, What are the implications of this moment of confirmation bias? Am I making customers feel good about taking a risk and making a choice? Or am I inadvertently creating an information bubble?


0:10:00.6 JC: That's it for this episode of the Choice Hacking podcast. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider checking out my book, Choice Hacking, available on any major internet book retailer like Amazon, Apple, Kobo and Google Books, and in audiobook form on Amazon and Audible. You can even download the first chapter for free if you visit choicehacking.com/freechapter. And as always, you can find me, Jen Clinehens, on Twitter @choicehacking, or follow Choice Hacking on LinkedIn, Instagram or Facebook. Until next time.


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