Surprise Journal‘Confirmation Bias’ is when our minds filter what we perceive of the world around us, amplifying evidence that fits our existing beliefs and playing down or ignoring altogether any information that challenges them.

Confirmation bias is inevitable – there’s so much information coming in all the time that we have to filter it somehow, or we’d be overwhelmed – but it can also be bad for us. It leads us to ignore evidence that things have changed until it’s too late to do anything about it.

It’s much easier to spot in other people than in ourselves, but you are as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone else. So how can you start to free yourself from its embrace?

A great new article at Slate by Julia Galef suggests a way forward.  When reality doesn’t fit the expectations flowing from our beliefs, the discrepancy will show up as a surprise when we finally notice it. Often, confirmation bias will lead us to rationalise the surprise away, to forget about it, or to ‘confabulate‘ a story which explains it in line with our beliefs.

To combat this tendency, Galef suggests keeping a ‘surprise journal’ to note any times you are surprised by events, and to ask yourself these questions about the surprise:

Why was this surprising? And what does that tell me about myself?

The first question invites you to compare your expectation/belief with what actually happened, giving you an opportunity to update the belief if needed.

The second question invites you to reflect on the relationship between your belief and reality at the deeper level of meaning, and to alter what you will do in future in the light of what you have learned.

For example:

Moment of surprise: successfully completing a torchlight descent of a mountain on a skiing holiday.
Why it was surprising
: because every time I’d skied down the same route in daylight, I’d fallen several times.
What this tells me
: you can perform beyond your expectations when you relax and learn from people who know what they are doing.

Galef reports how a science teacher in Arizona, Charlie Toft, had his students keep a ‘surprise journal’ to record at least 15 incidents over a school quarter, with encouraging results:

For Toft himself, the biggest surprise was how the experiment changed the way his students reacted to their own mistakes in class. “In the class culture, acknowledgement that you are mistaken about something has become dubbed a ‘moment of surprise’ (followed by a student scrambling to retrieve their journal to record it),” he wrote to me. “As this is much more value-neutral than ‘I screwed up,’ the atmosphere surrounding the topic is less stressful than in previous years.”

People hate to admit they are wrong, because they feel it hurts their self-esteem (a related cognitive distortion known in psychology as ‘self-serving bias’).  Reframing ‘errors’ as ‘moments of surprise’ reduces this effect; instead of rushing to think of justifications for their expectations being wrong when a surprising event happened, the students rushed to learn from it.

I believe that being part of a culture where keeping a ‘surprise journal’ is the norm makes it easier to be successful in using this technique, compared to trying to go it alone. When everyone is treating ‘errors’ as just surprises, it provides behavioural reinforcement for learning from ‘mistakes’ and updating your beliefs in the light of new information; instead of judgement and mockery for being stupid, admitting to occasions when you need to update your expectations brings you praise for being willing to learn.

Another benefit of reframing ‘errors’ as ‘surprises’ is that it reduces the self-judgement inherent in a ‘fixed’ mindset (in psychologist Carol Dweck’s terms) and encourages the willingness to learn from setbacks that characterises the more successful and less fearful ‘growth’ mindset.

The method also echoes the NLP saying ‘there is no failure, only feedback’ and fits nicely with Appreciative Inquiry’s aim of establishing a culture that focuses on strengths and encourages ‘generative’ thinking for new and creative solutions.

Additional note: the method also works with pleasant surprises! You can learn as much from your unexpected successes as your mistakes.

So why not start reducing your confirmation biases by keeping a ‘surprise journal’? And to give yourself more behavioural reinforcement, get at least one person (and ideally a whole group) to buddy up with you as well.

If you would like to learn more ways of encouraging positive change in organisations, teams and individuals, you may want to attend the Practical Appreciative Inquiry facilitator training starting soon!

Appreciative Inquiry Training
‘Writing’ image by ellikelli/

How To Use Surprise To Reduce Confirmation Bias

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