Confirmation Bias

We believe what we want to believe. But it’s not our fault; it’s how we’re hard-wired. It’s just our jobs to know this.

We all try to make sense of the world.

And what goes on within it.

We look to justify and explain our actions and find arguments that support our beliefs.

But this creates a problem.

An even bigger problem occurs when we attempt to do the opposite.

When we disregard information that contradicts those beliefs.

The biggest problem of them all is that we don’t even realise it’s happening.

The Battle of Gettysburg was a three-day encounter during the American Civil War.

Union Major General George Meade opposed Confederate General Robert E. Lee in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

A battle resulting in a Union victory, ultimately signalling a turning point in the war.

An outcome influenced by the decision-making of General Robert E. Lee.

Up until this point, Lee had had a tremendously successful career.

He led the Confederate army to an overwhelming victory in the Battle of Fredericksburg from a defensive position.

He demonstrated tremendous strategic ability six months later in the Battle of Chancellorsville, defeating a Union army double the size of his own.

But The Battle of Gettysburg would unfold very differently.

At the end of the first day of fighting, the Confederate Army had seized control of key positions around the town.

The second day consisted of heavy losses on both sides, with the Confederates pressing on to Union positions on Cemetery Ridge outside the town.

On the final day, Lee ordered a dramatic infantry assault towards the centre of this Union line.

The Union retaliated with heavy rifle and artillery fire.

It was a suicide mission.

And the battle was over.

The events on day three at Gettysburg would represent Lee’s final offensive in the war.

It was considered a terrible example of strategic decision making.

But there’s a reason for Lee’s decisions.

He regarded what happened at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and wins in other battles, his success formulas.

Consequently, making decisions in Gettysburg following what happened in those earlier battles.

His experience, though, was working against him.

This is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to recall, interpret and favour information in a way that confirms a pre-existing belief.

People show this bias when they collect or cite knowledge selectively. Or when they interpret it in a way that suits a particular agenda.

And it happens every day.

More so whilst we make buying decisions when alternatives are available.

We cherry-pick from existing beliefs from previous experiences that cloud our judgement, even though we’re trying to think logically.

There’s a reason why we as humans do this.

Scientists have stated that our minds are unequipped to handle the modern world.

A world filled with vast sources of information and data we’re required to understand and store.

For the most of human history, quite simply, survival has been the only goal.

Not so much the processing and examination of information.

So we take shortcuts when multiple decision-making is required.

We look to simplify. In the process, we forget about the bigger picture.

What has worked this way before will work this way again, right?

Marketers are faced with the problem of confirmation bias every day.

Not only do customers have their own biases when they buy.

But marketers base marketing campaigns on those that have worked previously.

We need to think of every campaign differently; treating each in isolation. Avoiding overconfidence and spending more time researching.

To the customers…

We need to target those who are yet to make up their minds in the market. Drawing on factors familiar to them.

Maybe by tapping into preconceived ideas and stereotypes. Maybe even praising and rewarding customers.

Or just focusing on existing customers.

More than anything, we need to be aware of confirmation bias in our customers and ourselves.

It’s all around us.

On that final day in Gettysburg, Lee had lost his grip on the battle.

Sure, he had out-thought and out-manoeuvred every general he had opposed.

In his mind he was invincible. His track record was too good.

He believed his men, under his orders, could never lose a battle of such scale.

He completely disregarded the strong positions the Union army had gained on an elevated Cemetery Ridge.

He decided to attack the very centre of a defensive position because, as strange as it sounds, he believed it was a weak point.

(On day two, he had already attacked this line to its right and its left.)

He was also trying to predict future Union moves against him based on their moves in previous battles.

Similarly, he was attributing his previous successes to what his armies had done right, and not to what the Union armies had done wrong.

He also failed to consider what his own senior commanders were advising him.

Waiting on a single source of intelligence – as he had done many times before – from one of his trusted spies that never came.

Lee’s perspective was skewed.

He was a victim of confirmation bias.

Which inevitably led to the end of the American Civil War.

Most commentators and historians would agree that for every argument in favour of an offensive on that final day, there were stronger ones against it.

Of course, some have also made arguments to support Lee’s strategic thinking and decision making at Gettysburg.

Which again is confirmation bias.

Because they’re still dealing with the same sources of information as each other.

Just interpreting them differently.

Another example of how people with contrasting opinions, and the same evidence, can come away validated by those opinions.

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39 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias

  1. In our modern society bias do exists and that too in many various forms. A very nice article sir.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it Kamini.

      And yes, Napoleon’s track record gave him the confidence to attack Russia, even though he was advised not to due to many factors. The same can be said about Germany and Japan during WW2.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Thank you for “following” my blog and that follow brought me to yours, Gareth.

    I enjoyed your blog post, a shrewd combination of popular history with your story/theme on marketing weaved into it. First time I’ve come across this technique. Excellent! For me, yours is a novel approach. I also enjoy bloggers who post well-researched and thought through posts as opposed to those who bang out dozens a week.

    Regarding Gettysburg—I’m a fan of geopolitics—historians and analysts join the dots after the fact, with the full benefit of hindsight. They help us make sense out of chaos.

    You used the historical events well to press home your point regarding marketing which is informative and cause for thought. Thank you.

    I’ll be returning to read through more posts.

    Have a great start to the New Year,
    Eric

    1. Hi Eric. Thanks for taking the time out to read and comment. I appreciate the positive feedback and I’m glad that you were able to take something from the post. Happy New Year to you!

  3. Very interesting and detailed analysis. I found it particularly interesting since one of my great-grandfathers was wounded on Day 3 of the Battle of Gettysburg.

  4. Great post. Even with awareness of some of our biases, there are still more hidden, motivating our actions and acceptance of this is a good place to start.

  5. Gen. Ewell (now in charge of Jackson’s Corps) who had basically routed the Union troops in his sector by evening of the first day, failed to push on in pursuit of the enemy as ordered by Lee, thereby allowing the enemy forces time to regroup and gather their troops in defense of Cemetery Hill. That failure started the ball of defeat rolling for the Confederate troops. I can’t say Lee wasn’t to blame later when he refused to make a night march with his army around the Union’s left flank. Many believe they could have succeeded in getting behind the Union army, leaving the way clear for an attack on Washington, DC.

    1. Hi Michael. And thanks for reading and sharing! 🙂

      From what I gather – and I am by no means an expert on Gettysburg or the American Civil War – there are conflicting versions of this event, specifically about the orders that were/wern’t given to Ewell.

      This is an interesting article that sums up the other side of the argument (https://www.historynet.com/did-lt-gen-richard-ewell-lose-the-battle-of-gettysburg.htm) that claims “Lee sent no definitive orders directing Ewell to pursue the enemy when the Union lines broke at Gettysburg, and Ewell was not benumbed by indecision when he should have been chasing the Federals to prevent them from establishing an impregnable position on top of Cemetery Hill.”

      To be honest, I couldn’t conclude for sure what actually happened regarding the order to advance, but it seems clear to me that Lee (and the men under his command) made some big mistakes during the battle that could have been avoided.

      1. Hi Gareth,

        I’m aware there are two (maybe more) viewpoints of the story about whether or not Ewell should’ve pushed on the evening of that first day. I’ve always believed that Lee, now engaged in the war’s biggest battle, MIGHT HAVE believed that Ewell would press on surely as Jackson would have. Still, several factors worked together to bring on the defeat, including Stuart’s cavalry gone astray, leaving Lee somewhat blind. My thought is he should have taken Longstreet’s advice (I believe it was Longstreet, and maybe others) to use the cover of darkness to get around and behind the enemy. And I’ll never quite understand Lee’s command to charge the Union’s center on day three.

        Then again, the Confederates let a HUGE opportunity to end the war quickly when they failed to advance on to Washington in the footsteps of the routed and bewildered Union forces at First Manassas. Interesting stuff.

        Michael

  6. Very well put together Gareth👏
    Same set of information and interpreted differently 😊 : that is our mind; rational, thinking mind has its limitations. It can only process information from its past stored memories, experiences and their interpretations.
    If we want to live in these era of excess of information- there is only one way — Meditation. Regular meditation makes us intuitive; our heads and hearts start to sync more …..

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