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Thought diversity and the confirmation bias

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Thought diversity and the confirmation bias

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I recently attended the Advancing Women In Technology forum hosted by EveryWoman.  The forum was run to coincide with International Womens Day, upon which a hackathon was completed to try and encourage young girls to consider a career in technology.

The forum itself began with an array of statistics highlighting the paucity of female talent, both in STEM subjects at school, and in the tech industry itself.

It then went on to feature a number of highly successful women from the industry sharing some insights into their journey and how they think things can improve.

The rationale is clearly evident.  There is a widespread shortage of tech talent, and so it would be madness for the industry to discount the potential of half of the population.

When you consider that diverse teams are usually more innovative and productive, the case for diversity is compelling indeed.

In that sense, therefore, the event was very well needed.  What concerned me (as a man) however, was the distinct lack of diversity among delegates.

Of the 600 or so attendees, I would be surprised if more than a handful were men.

I wrote earlier this year about the confirmation bias, whereby we tend to hunt down information that confirms what we already believe to be true.

It’s particularly common in tight knit and homogenous groups and is characterized by groupthink in popular parlance.

How diverse are we really?

A recentstudyhighlights just how pervasive, and how damaging confirmation bias is to our thinking process.

It wanted to test how we respond to information that challenges our beliefs. Do we update our beliefs accordingly or do we try somehow to discredit the information, or indeed downplay the importance of facts to our beliefs?

The researchers conducted a series of experiments whereby participants were shown information from a conference on science and religion. For instance, some participants, of religious convictions, were given information suggesting that the discovery of the Higgs Boson was a potential threat to religion.

The participants reacted to this information by suggesting that their religious beliefs were a result of unfalsifiable things, such as the ‘impossibility of living a moral life without God’.

The study found that this was not limited to purely religious beliefs. Another experiment recruited participants who were either for or against same sex marriages.

They were shown data on the life outcomes of children raised by such parents, with the data showing either a good or bad upbringing respectively. In other words, the data either supported or undermined the prejudice of the participant.

As expected, when the evidence was supportive, it was used to support their argument, but when it was critical, the participants sought to discredit the facts in someway.

The authors believe this occurs because many of our beliefs evolve over time to become less based upon evidence and more a matter of unchallengeable conviction.

Thought diversity

Suffice to say, few of our organizational beliefs sit on a par with things such as religion or sexual orientation, but it does nonetheless remind us how easy it is for memes to take hold and entrench themselves in our thinking.

It underlines the importance of having a diverse set of intellects and experiences to call upon in our enterprises, but also a diverse set of information to call upon when crafting our opinions.

I couldn’t help but wonder as I was sat there among a sea of women whether having such a homogenous group was really helping the move to get more women into technology.

Was it providing valuable support or entrenching a perspective that women are different from men in considerable ways?

After all, when a recent study compared men and women across 75 psychological characteristics, it found an 80 percent overlap.

Are, undoubtedly well meaning, events such as that hosted by EveryWoman, merely therefore providing women with intellectual safe havens?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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