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Black Swans & Confirmation Bias


Danny Raede

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Sabrina felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. She glanced up towards the front of the classroom where professor Horvath was lecturing. He wasn't looking in her direction. Sabrina carefully pulled out her phone and held it underneath the desk as she read her latest text from her friend Kaitlin. "Hey, I just ran into your boyfriend at the mall." What? That didn't make sense. Her boyfriend, Ronnie, was supposed to be at work right now and his office wasn't even on the same side of town as the mall, so what could he possibly be doing there? Maybe his boss had given him the day off, but even if that was true, it still wouldn't explain the mall excursion. Ronnie hated shopping. The only time he ever went inside a mall was when he and Sabrina went there together on a date night. Suddenly Sabrina felt a stab of fear as the realization hit her, Ronnie might have gone to the mall to see another girl, maybe. She wanted to make sure, as her pulse quickened Sabrina tapped out a quick text to Ronnie on her phone. "Hey babe, what are you up to?" His reply buzzed in a few minutes later. "Hey, I was just thinking about you. I'm at work right now. What are you up to?" Sabrina couldn't believe it. Ronnie had just lied. That proved it. He was cheating on her. Why else would he lie?

White, hot anger twisted in Sabrina's chest. Her nostrils flared. How could he betray her like this? I mean it's not like they were married, but if Ronnie wanted to go out and be with some other girl, then he could at least have the decency to break up with his current girlfriend first face to face instead of cheating on her. Later that night when Ronnie came home from work, he opened the apartment door to find Sabrina waiting for him. She stared at him furiously without saying a word. Ronnie looked puzzled. "What's going on, babe? You doing okay?" Sabrina tossed her phone in his direction still without saying a word. Ronnie caught it and glanced at the screen. The text conversation from Sabrina's friend about seeing Ronnie at the mall earlier that day was already pulled up on the screen. Ronnie read the text quickly and then looked up at Sabrina. "You're wondering about why I was at the mall today?" He asked, "I can't believe you did this." Sabrina responded. "Did what?" Sabrina rolled her eyes. "Come on. Don't play dumb. Just tell me who is she."

Now Ronnie looked really confused. "Who is who?" He laid out every word slowly, carefully. Finally, Sabrina broke down in rage filled tears as she began screaming at Ronnie. "Just stop it! I know what's going on! You skipped work so you could go make out with some other girl at the mall! Why else would you be there? You hate shopping, and then you lied to me about it and said you were at work. Well, I hope she was worth it because this thing you and I have, it's over!" Ronnie looked sick like he'd just been kicked in the stomach. Tears filled his eyes. Finally, he looked up, took a deep breath and wiped the tears out of his eyes. Then he spoke slowly. Softly. "Sabrina darlin, I'm sorry I lied to you about going to the mall today, but I didn't go there to meet up with some girl. I, uh, I went there to buy an engagement ring for you. I love you. I had this whole surprise date planned for us this weekend, and then... Sabrina, I swear I only lied about being at work today because I wanted it to be a surprise." Ronnie reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small white jewelry box. He popped it open to reveal a beautiful diamond ring nestled inside the smooth black fabric. Sabrina's eyes widened in shock, which quickly turned to horror as the cold realization settled into her stomach. "Ronnie, I... I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. What have I done?"

Back in 16th century Europe, people use the term black Swan as a metaphorical way of describing something that was considered to be impossible, because in 16th century Europe, there was only one kind of Swan in existence, a white Swan. So the idea of a black Swan was considered ridiculous and preposterous. That is until European explorers actually discovered black swans over in Australia. As it turns out, black swans are real. It was shocking, unthinkable. Something that was once considered to be unquestionably impossible suddenly turned out to be true. It was a mind bending game-changing piece of information. Former U.S Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfield once said; "There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are also known unknowns. That is to say there are some things that we know we do not know, but there are also unknown unknowns. The things that we don't know, we don't know. It is this latter category that tended to be the difficult ones." Nowadays, the term black Swan is used in fields like economics and negotiation to refer to those unknown unknowns. Those hidden unexpected pieces of information that once discovered and understood could change everything.

Michael Burry, a former medical doctor turned hedge fund manager, discovered a black Swan piece of information after he spent countless hours analyzing the U.S housing market, specifically subprime mortgages. He discovered that the housing market was built on a crumbling sandy foundation. This was a black Swan and unexpected game changing piece of information. Burry correctly predicted that the housing market would crash hard, which it eventually did in 2008. In the years prior to 2008 the U.S housing market was considered by most to be a relatively safe, rock solid investment. But as it turns out, in hindsight, most people were wrong. This true story of Michael Burry's dramatic foresight was later popularized in the 2015 film The Big Short. Sabrina's story from earlier provides another good illustration of why it's so important to look for and uncover black swans in accountability conversations, rather than jumping to conclusions. in the end, Sabrina was successful in discovering her black Swan, which in this case was the existence of a diamond engagement ring, but at what cost? Her discovery came too late, and by then the damage was already done.

In the classic Greek tragedies, great heroes often possess some kind of fatal flaw or hamartia that ultimately leads to their downfall. One of the most deadly and commonplace mistakes a hero can fall into is what the Greeks called hubris, an excessive arrogance or self confidence. With hubris, you might assume that you're invincible or you might think that you're always right because you're the smartest guy in the room. Sabrina's mistake, or hamartia if you prefer, was a very specific kind of hubris, a cognitive trap that psychologists call confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to the human tendency to just assume that whatever we think or believe is unquestionably correct. Much like an ostrich who buries its head in the sand, with confirmation bias we close our eyes to the world around us and stop searching for answers. We stop trying to understand because we believe we have already discovered the whole truth and we couldn't possibly be wrong, so what's the point in continuing the search? Once it settles in, this dangerous assumption can be so pervasive that we will often unconsciously distort our view of reality and the facts in order to prove ourselves right. All the while we may continue with the sincere belief that we are being objective, rational observers of the world around us, but we're not. With confirmation bias we are quick to shine the spotlight on any shred of evidence that confirms our theory is true. Meanwhile, we're quick to ignore any possibility that we might be missing or overlooking something. We become dismissive, forgetful, or even aggressive at the first sign of any uncomfortable evidence that looks like it might challenge our belief. So what can we do? How do we avoid making Sabrina's mistake and overcome confirmation bias? The key is to listen, ask questions and seek to understand. Most importantly, whatever you might currently believe to be true, begin with the assumption that you might be wrong, that there's at least a chance that you might be missing something. So instead of limiting your search to information that would confirm your theory is true. Try to look for disconfirming information. In other words, search for critical pieces of information that you don't expect to find, but that if you did find them, it would prove you wrong.

For example, let's say your child is struggling in school and he's acting moody and depressed at home. You assume it's because he finds his homework to be too stressful. With confirmation bias, you might say something like, "Hey, I've noticed you've been struggling at school lately. Are you feeling pretty stressed out by your homework?" And he says; "Yeah, homework is stupid." Then confirmation bias comes in and says, aha, I knew it. No further questions your honor. Let's move immediately into solving the problem and figuring out a plan for how we can make homework less stressful for you, while still getting it done. And maybe you're right, maybe you got lucky and you guessed the root cause of your son's behavior correctly on your first try. But, what if I told you that your son was being bullied at school every day, but that he's embarrassed to talk to you about it because he thinks that if he admits he's being bullied and he needs help, that's like admitting he's weak and helpless. That's not true of course, but that's what he thinks. He doesn't want to be thought of as weak. He wants to be strong, so he keeps it to himself. It's true that your son also finds homework to be stressful. He wasn't lying about that. It's also true that stress is the reason he's struggling at school, but homework isn't the primary source of that stress. So fixing the homework problem won't actually solve the bigger problem.

An important milestone on the path towards successful accountability is finding the truth and diagnosing the root cause of what's really going on. Of course, the ultimate goal is to solve the problem and get results, but chances are you won't be able to design an effective solution until after you discover and diagnose those hidden black swans that may lie at the root of the problem.

Note: This is an excerpt from our 8 week course "The Accountability Plan". Get more information and enroll here.

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