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5 Tips to Avoid Bad Decisions

The holocaust never happened. The moon landing was staged. And Sex and the City 2 is a great movie. How do I know this? I did a Google search. No matter what your position, you can find support. The lesson? Be careful what you ask, or maybe more appropriately, be careful how you ask. In psychology, the term for this is confirmation bias and it can have damaging consequences for your finances and your life if you're not careful.

Nobody likes to be wrong, so we'll actively try to find support for our existing beliefs. We'll scour the web to try to find anybody saying anything that remotely resembles our own beliefs. "Well, how can I be wrong when blogger 'iheartcarrie' clearly agrees with me?" we ask.

The problem with confirmation bias is that you selectively filter what information you choose to pay attention to and value. So not only will you actively look for evidence and seek experts that confirm your existing beliefs, but even more pernicious, you'll hide from or discredit any information that contradicts your viewpoint. This can cause you to dump money into a failing business, time into a bad relationship, or even to stay in a stock too long.

For example, let's say after watching the stock market go up and up and up over the past year, you decided to jump back in a month ago (woops). Now you're fully invested and you've just seen the market drop 10%. If you're suffering from confirmation bias, instead of rationally evaluating the long-term economic and financial outlook of the U.S. and global economy, you may selectively read just those blogs or columns that are bullish. If you come across an article that is bearish, you'll dismiss it, or maybe not even read it.

Confirmation bias isn't just a problem for investors. It's a problem you need to be aware of when looking for a spouse, starting a business, interviewing for a new job, managing people, and any other situation where a supply of fresh information can help you make better decisions.

Confirmation bias is very difficult to recognize, but here are five tips you can use to help minimize this cognitive distortion:

  1. Remove your ego. At its root, confirmation bias is an ego disease. We hate to be wrong and we're desperate for others to validate our position. Seek the truth over being right, because if you disregard the truth long enough, you'll eventually be proven wrong anyway.
  2. Seek disagreement. Foster an environment where it is not only okay to disagree but encouraged. Asking friends, family, and employees "Am I right?" will likely get only those who agree with you to speak up. A better question is, "Why am I wrong?" At meetings, require everyone to play devil's advocate. Early on it might be difficult to get this kind of feedback from others because they're probably not used to thinking about why you're wrong (well, at least verbalizing it), so turn it into a game and reward the best answers.
  3. Ask better questions. One of the most worthless questions to ask a friend or co-worker is "How do you think I did?" It's worthless because you'll never get any constructive feedback. A much better question is "What could I have done differently to make it better?" By changing the question ever so slightly, you'll be shocked at the honest advice you'll hear.
  4. Keep information channels open. Constantly seek alternative views and opinions in print, on TV, and in person. That might mean visiting websites, reading newspapers, and watching shows that you've previously avoided. Remember, seek the truth, not evidence that you're right.
  5. Google better. Don't search what you want to prove, because with over 3 billion web pages, you're bound to find one that agrees with you. Instead, use open-ended searches that aren't biased.
Keep these five tips in mind and you'll avoid confirmation bias. Now if you could only avoid Sex and the City 2...

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