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From the boardroom to the classroom to the living room, we aren’t always as in control of our decisions as we think we might be. As uncomfortable as it may feel to some, scores of academic studies and personal anecdotes point to the fact that our decisions, actions, and behaviour are often not the result of calculated reasoning, but rather, are often snap responses based on emotion and intuition, shaped by the surrounding environment.

From the boardroom to the classroom to the living room, we aren’t always as in control of our decisions as we think we might be. As uncomfortable as it may feel to some, scores of academic studies and personal anecdotes point to the fact that our decisions, actions, and behaviour are often not the result of calculated reasoning, but rather, are often snap responses based on emotion and intuition, shaped by the surrounding environment.

 

image via The Middle Road

 

Judgements underlying our behaviour can systematically differ from what we might otherwise expect them to be given the facts of the situation, and this is called ‘cognitive bias’ in the behavioural science literature. At the RSA, the Social Brain Centre and the Education team are currently exploring the ways in which an understanding of cognitive bias might be applied to education policy and practice.

One of the biases we are looking at in detail is the confirmation bias – which is the tendency for us to seek out and to interpret information in such a way as to confirm or support our pre-existing beliefs. (It is often so much easier to recognise this in others than in ourselves.  Consider the last heated difference of opinion you’ve had with your spouse, a friend, colleague, parent, or politician…).

Why is this important? To start, the way in which we praise students may actually serve to reinforce the confirmation bias. If we praise a student for providing only evidence that supports his or her claim -rather than asking for counter-evidence as well to get a fuller, more balanced perspective- then the natural tendency to confirm their own claim is further supported by these social norms.  

The confirmation bias may perpetuate a certain self-perception

Additionally, the confirmation bias may perpetuate a certain self-perception. For example, a student may begin a school year with an expectation about his or her own potential, or what ‘type’ of student s/he is. Similarly, a teacher may form an expectation of a student’s likely performance based on an initial impression (this is sometimes known as the ‘halo effect’ in behavioural science; I’ve been told that this same term is used slightly differently in other circles). Given our natural tendency to notice cues and information that support what we already think, these student identities might be reinforced and locked in. In turn, this self-perception itself could have implications for student performance, student-teacher or peer interaction, and effort.

Given that this particular bias seems to be so important for how we learn content, our potential careers, and on a student’s self-perception, I have already devoted a lot of thought to it. So I was absolutely delighted when Rolf Dobelli, speaking at the LSE on Thursday, referred to the confirmation bias in passing as “the mother of all thinking biases”.

Even though we are currently exploring cognitive biases specifically in the context of educational policy and practice, it is not hard to see how they are relevant to non-educationalists, too.  Of course, many people reading this have themselves been formally educated at some point, or have children who are in school.  But even beyond that, replacing the word ‘student’ with the words ‘colleague’ or ‘family member’ in the paragraphs above may help shed light on unexpected outcomes stemming from decisions made at work or at home.

To find out more about the work of the Social Brain Centre and the Education Matters team, sign up to receive our blogs directly to your inbox, and if you are interested in supporting our work please contact me at Nathalie.spencer@rsa.org.uk

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