Jeremy Wolfe is a visual attention researcher who has shown that we see what we expect to see. In one interesting scenario, they created an airport security screening process and asked the study participants to screen bags for “weapons.”
When participants were told these dangerous objects would occur 50% of the time, participants had a 7% error rate. When the participants were told the dangerous objects would occur just 1% of the time, the error rate was 30%. If they did not expect to see something, they did not see it, even when it was right in front of their eyes.
This may sound interesting, and perhaps irrelevant to education, but this is not true. It is something I am very mindful of when it comes to student safety and security.
It also could occur in the classroom if we think about student attention, focus, and behavior. Some psychologists have named this phenomenon “bounded awareness” and define it as our tendency to not see, seek out, or use readily available and relevant information. The result is that sometimes we do not perceive readily perceivable information. Other times, we perceive relevant information but miss the obvious relevance.
Max Bazerman explains we are better at focusing than we are at noticing in his book “The Power of Noticing.”
I share all of this because it is a thinking tool I use regularly and nearly every day. There are times when we must focus our attention or gaze on an issue, but we must realize when we do this, we have largely lost the ability to notice.
As a concrete example, if we focus our attention on the total tax rate of the district currently and focus on those numbers historically then we can spend a lot of time focused on tax rates, but do not notice that overall, our tax rate has not been this low in our community since 1992. In fact, the total tax rate is down 24.8% since 2005-2006. Hold this thought for a second, because I am going to come back to it.
Confirmation bias is really hard to notice as it happens (especially if you are trying to notice it within yourself) and relatively easy to explain. One paragraph and a game can prove my point.
Your job is to guess the rule I am using for the following number sequence. You can only guess the rule once, but you could share other sequences of numbers and I will tell you if you are correct. Here is my sequence: 5, 10, 15, 20. What is the rule I am using?
Some already know the answer, they don’t have to even think about it. Some may want to check first to make sure I’m not playing a trick so they say 50, 55, 60, 65 and I say, “correct.”
You all are likely thinking the same answer, the rule is add five to the previous number (or multiplication tables by five). All of you who guessed that are wrong.
My rule was simply, add a number. You could have asked me if 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 meets my rule and I would have said “correct,” but it didn’t occur to you to ask that sequence. Confirmation bias is why. You were certain the answer was to count up by five because it is obvious.
So obvious, that when you were given the opportunity to gather more information, you only sought out information to confirm what you believed to be true, not to challenge your own thinking.
This is really important. Think how many times we only seek out information to prove ourselves correct. I will be the first to admit I fall prey to confirmation bias all the time as hard as I try not to.
I have a poster on my desk with various thinking biases that I see countless times every day just to check myself regularly. This has been one of my guiding lights throughout the pandemic.
Back to the tax rate from above. When I shared that information about our local tax rate being the lowest since 1992, maybe you immediately thought, “well my property value has gone up since 1992, so surely the district is getting more as a result.” This is confirmation bias rearing its ugly head. We begin looking for information to confirm what we believe to be true as it relates to tax rates (my home value went up, so it makes sense...).
We may fail to realize or notice that when property values rise, the amount we get in state aid decreases so there are no added funds coming to the district.
I will keep thinking... and I know you will too.