Positive Test Strategies

Positive Test Strategies

A real danger for us, that I don’t know how to move beyond, is positive test strategy. It is the search for evidence that confirms what we want to believe or what we think is true. When we already have an intuition about something, we look for examples that support our intuition. Looking for examples that don’t support our thought, or situations where our idea seems to fall short, is uncomfortable, and not something we are very good at. Positive test strategies are a form of motivated rationality, where we find ways to justify what we want to believe, and find ways to align our beliefs with what happens to be best for us.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes the following, “A deliberate search for confirming evidence, known as positive test strategy, is also how System 2 tests a hypothesis. Contrary  to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypothesis by trying to refute them, people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold.” 

 

In science, the best way to conduct a study is to try to refute the null hypothesis, rather than to try to support the actual hypothesis. You take a condition about the world, try to make an informed guess about why you observe what you do, and then you formulate a null hypothesis before you begin any testing. Your null hypothesis says, actually nothing is happening here after all. So you might think that teenage drivers are more likely to get in car crashes at roundabouts than regular intersections, or that crickets are more likely to eat a certain type of grass. Your null hypothesis is that teenagers do not crash at roundabouts more than typical intersections and that crickets don’t display a preference for one type of grass over another.

 

In your experimental study, instead of seeking out confirmation to show that teenagers crash more at roundabouts or that crickets prefer a certain grass, you seek to prove that there is a difference in where teenagers crash and which grass crickets prefer. In other-words, you seek to disprove the null hypothesis (that there is no difference) rather than try to prove that something specific is happening. It is a subtle difference, but it is importance. Its also important to note that good science doesn’t seek to disprove the null hypothesis in a specific direction. Good science tries to avoid positive test strategies by showing that the nothing to see here hypothesis is wrong and that there is something to see, but it could be in any direction. If scientists do want to provide more evidence that it is in a given direction, they look for stronger evidence, and less chance of random sampling error.

 

In our minds however, we don’t often do this. We start to see a pattern of behavior or outcomes, and we start searching for explanations to what we see. We come up with a hypothesis, think of more things that would fit with our hypothesis, and we find ways to explain how things align with our hypothesis. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, this is what the character Gus does when he tries to show that all words in the world are originally Greek.

 

Normally, we identify something that would be in our personal interest or would support our group identity in a way to help raise our social status. From there, we begin to adopt hypothesis about how the world should operate that support what is in our personal interest. We then look for ways to test our hypothesis that would support it, and we avoid situations where our hypothesis could be disproven. Finding things that support what we already want to believe is comforting and relatively easy compared to identifying a null hypothesis, testing it, and then examining the results without already having a pre-determined outcome that we want to see.

Confirmation Bias: A Hindrance to Quality Decision Making

Fred Kiel addresses his ideas about disciplined decision making processes in his book Return on Character which focuses on the ways in which leaders with strong moral character make greater impacts on the companies they lead than do leaders with weak moral character.  Part of Kiel’s idea regarding these strong moral leaders is that they have worked on processes of self reflection, and they are able to control the quick emotional side of their brain in favor of the slow, deliberate, and rational part of their brain.  By understanding that their immediate reaction may provide valuable intuitions and by slowing down their decision making process to use reason over emotion, these leaders can make better decisions that help improve the lives of everyone, not just themselves.

 

While discussing this decision making process Kiel also mentions the idea of confirmation bias. He hits briefly on the idea that we find information that confirms thoughts and ideas that we had already developed which in our mind proves our thoughts correct.  Rather than seeking information that challenges our preconceived notions, we look for news stories, data points, and other people who see things the same way.  When we succumb to confirmation bias we begin to build a capsule of likeminded individuals around us that shields us from opposing thoughts and ideas.  The danger here is that our ideas could be wrong, impractical, morally shallow, or just not as advantageous for growth and progress as we think they are.  If we can become comfortable with shifting perspectives and learn to discuss other view points, then we will become a more well-rounded individual.

 

By striving to avoid confirmation bias leaders can make better decisions and be more connected to their employees, customers, and competition.  They can become more adaptive and better predict how the world in which they operate will change, giving them an advantage in moving forward. When leaders succumb to confirmation bias they have only one option for success, and if it does not pan out they will not have the flexibility and varying perspectives to turn the situation around.

 

When we incorporate multiple perspectives we can actually better develop our own perspective.  We can begin to add new parts and pieces to our ideas helping them become more robust.  The goal of finding new perspectives should not be to stockpile our own ammunition against those perspectives, but to better understand why others see the world in those differing manners so that we can better connect with them and better adapt to suite not just our own needs, but everyones.  To truly avoid confirmation bias you must seek out other information which conflicts with your thoughts, and you must digest that information from multiple perspectives.

What We Set Out to Find

In his book The Go Giver Bob Berg tells a story that relates back to positive ideas about business and the sales side of business.  It is often hard to picture positive things coming from a work and business environment, especially when companies and executives are portrayed as greedy and selfish.  In his book, Berg lays out a better platform for looking at and understanding business contexts. He talks about the importance of developing relationships of trust within our professional lives, and acting with integrity as a genuinely nice person to others.  His cornerstone idea rests with treating other people well, and providing more in value than you receive in payment. In other words, Berg is focused on giving more than asking and taking.  Hi book explores how the idea of giving can lead one to become very successful, especially at points where we need to rely on others for assistance.

 

Throughout his book he dives into multiple themes and ideas, and one idea that resonated with me was his thoughts on perspective.  Berg writes, “See the world as a dog-eat-dog place and you’ll always find a bigger dog looking at you as if you’re his next meal.  Go looking for the best in people, and you’ll be amazed at how much talent, ingenuity, empathy and good you will find.” What Berg is identifying her is the importance of what we are focusing on and trying to perceive.  Our perspective can be limited to only the negative aspects of any place that we are at, which will only lead to the continued flood of negative thoughts and perceptions. Berg continues, “Ultimately, the world treats you more or less the way you expect to be treated.” He is showing us how confirmation bias can affect our workplace, and how disastrous it can be if we are not aware of the thoughts that we build.

 

What Berg explains in his two quotes is the idea of perspective and expectations shaping our experiences.  Our presumptions and prejudices will change the way we interact with others, which will be noticeable to them, and in the end our attitude will shape the way we are treated by those with whom we interact.  A negative mindset will prevent us from connecting with those around us or in our community and will lead to others having negative thoughts about us. In his book, Berg explains that a positive perspective can help us become successful because it changes the expectations we have about our work, and allows us to reach for new possibilities.