If critical thinking was easy, everyone would do it!
Every day, I speak with customers regarding the importance of assessing and developing critical thinking skills in their employees. I share ways in which they can create a culture of critical thinking. I blog about the topic, speak to HR associations about the topic, and even coach critical thinking in the Critical Thinking University discussion forums.
So, you can imagine my embarrassment when I fell prey to a common cognitive bias recently.
It all began when I saw a dreaded note on my toddler’s preschool class door. “There are 4 confirmed cases of Hand Foot and Mouth Disease. Be on the lookout for a fever and a rash around the child’s hands, feet, and mouth.” My fears multiplied when I learned that my daughter’s best friend was patient zero. Hand Foot and Mouth disease is a highly contagious virus that spreads easily and quickly among children. The child first develops a fever, then a few days later a rash and/or small blisters appear which cause considerable discomfort. There is no treatment for the virus, and it takes several days for the symptoms to disappear. All you can do is treat the discomfort with Tylenol and encourage the child to drink liquids and eat popsicles to stay hydrated. Once I saw the note, I immediately launched into Worst Case Scenario mode.
So, the next morning, when my toddler felt a bit warm, I grabbed our infrared thermometer and let out a sigh as it flashed a bright red screen and read 102º. I actually scanned my daughter with the thermometer several times to ensure the reading was correct. Being thorough in my analysis, I scanned my own forehead with the thermometer which read 98.8º. With that confirmation, I resigned myself that we were in for the long haul with Hand Foot and Mouth Disease.
We also have an infant at home, so we did our best over the next few days to quarantine the toddler, use hand sanitizer frequently, and Lysol everything in sight. We kept checking the toddler’s temp and it consistently registered between 101-102º day after day. Knowing it was only a matter of time before the rash/blister stage took hold, I checked the toddler’s hands and feet looking for red sports, but nothing appeared. I assumed the virus was just slow to show additional symptoms. After a few days, the toddler would occasionally show me her hands and say they hurt, but I couldn’t see any spots. My own hands began to feel like they were burning, so I wondered if the virus was just presenting differently for the two of us. Day after day went by…Thursday…Friday…Saturday…Sunday…Monday… Still no rash or blisters (or any other symptoms at all, really), but the fever remained consistent.
By Tuesday morning when her fever registered at 102º again, I’d had enough. We immediately headed to the pediatrician’s office for advice. The nurse scanned my daughter’s head with the thermometer, and I saw her make a funny face. She scanned again and wrote something down on her notepad. As I was answering the other nurse’s questions about my daughter’s symptoms, I glanced down at the notepad…98.7º. Wait, what? I was in disbelief. How can a child go from 102º to 98.7º in a half hour? We discussed our options (blood work, chest scans, etc) but since the fever was apparently gone, we decided to go home and monitor the situation to see if the fever returned before taking any action.
I left the doctor’s office still baffled. How could her fever disappear so quickly? Did the fever just happen to break on the way to the doctor’s office? As soon as we returned home, I used my own infrared thermometer to scan her. Unbelievably, it read 102º. It took 6 full days for my critical thinking skills to kick in. I grabbed our back-up digital thermometer and placed it under her arm. A few seconds later, I just shook my head as I read the screen- 98.6º.
In just a few seconds of reflection, I realized I had succumb to a common cognitive bias. From the second I read the notice on the Preschool door, I had mentally prepared for my daughter to catch the virus. From the first scan on, I interpreted any evidence as confirmation of my belief. I barely attempted to double check the evidence. Now that I can reflect logically on the only symptoms we experienced, I realize our hands weren’t burning from an invisible rash, it was from excessive hand sanitizer usage. That thought never occurred to me thanks to confirmation bias.
I failed to engage the RED Model of Critical Thinking that week.
Evaluate Information- I never questioned the validity of my thermometer. I never sought out any data to the contrary because my assumptions were so strong. And when new data (burning hands) appeared, I never considered that the cause could be anything other than the virus. I also never questioned the lack of other tell-tale symptoms. I failed to objectively evaluate the evidence, or lack thereof.
Draw Conclusions- Because I had incorrectly interpreted the evidence, I drew the wrong conclusion and lost 4 days of work (and 4 days of preschool tuition) caring for a sick child that wasn’t actually sick.
Confirmation Bias is a very dangerous logical error. Imagine the scenario above, but replace the parent expecting a children’s virus with an individual expecting profit from a financial investment. The same way I waited and waited for symptoms to appear because I was expecting to see them any day, an investor may only seek out information that confirms their bias toward a certain investment and then wait too long to cut their losses because they anticipate returns any day.
To defend against Confirmation Bias, it’s important to:
- Remain purposefully neutral when evaluating information
- When you do form a hypothesis, seek out evidence to the contrary
- Check your assumptions and evidence interpretation with a subject matter expert
- Engage a trusted person to take on the role of Devil’s Advocate
Learn more about critical thinking by downloading the Think About It! eBook.
Editor’s Note: Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens. She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training. She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting. She is the chief blogger for Critical Thinkers and occasionally posts at ThinkWatson. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.