Embracing Cognitive Dissonance

How drawing a single line changed everything

I’ve been thinking about small changes I can make in my Design practice which can make a big impact. In my opinion, one of the biggest curses of design research is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.
Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study.
Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.
As such, it can be thought of as a form of selection bias in collecting evidence.

via ScienceDaily

I’ll admit it, I just scanned 4 articles looking for the definition which best fit my understanding of the term ‘confirmation bias’.

Confirmation bias is alive and well.

Some would argue that confirmation bias is driving our society, our economy, and making us stupid.

So, here I am, throwing my humble thoughts into the ether, to help Designers, Entrepreneurs, and other folks who are seeking to create meaning in the world (and/or create a better one), to change one thing about the way we research.

Draw a single line on your note pad.

That’s it. That’s my revolutionary idea.

But what it represents, is the practice of listening. Really listening. Not waiting for my chance to speak. Or to confirm that my idea is the next Unicorn (urgh).

I’m listening for something new. Listening for something that surprises me. That’s where the gold lies.

I’m talking about deep listening, best described by Scharmer’s work on Theory U:

Image courtesy of Presencing Institute

What I was looking for was a buzzing in my head, a feeling of discomfort about what I was hearing. Too often we want to actively ignore, discount or undermine what we’re hearing when we get this feeling.

This is the dissonance from which creativity, new perspectives and insight springs.

Cognitive Dissonance is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.

via Wikipedia

So you drew the line, so what?

Well, my suggestion is that on the left side, you continue to note down the details, the facts, the observations of body language — whatever you feel like you need to get down in that moment to do your research well.

On the right side of the line, as I indicated above, actively listen for things that surprise you, things which may clash with your own understanding, things which may feel uncomfortable. This is your practice, so use it how you wish. From my experience, this is where you’ll often find the breakthrough insights which improve your design work hugely, or indicate there’s a whole other direction you might want to explore.

This for me is based on the idea of embracing the diversity of ideas and perspectives that other people bring to the design process, and there’s often much better ways of uncovering them than just sitting down and speaking to people — some ideas from Elizabeth Sanders’ MakeTools here.

Forging New Perspectives

So, drawing that single vertical line was one small change in the way I lay out my notes in user observations and interviews, which has driven a whole new behaviour of looking for new insights and patterns.

I think it’s already made me a better researcher, a better Designer, and a better human.

In my ongoing struggle to understand how to get out the way and not become another middle aged white guy designing a world for middle aged white guys, this has been a really useful tactic to help break down my own confirmation bias, break through my own echo chambers, and truly hear what people are trying to say — embracing cognitive dissonance.

Courtesy of Beautiful Brutal Truth

Case Study: Listening To Public Servants

Recently I was undertaking a research and evaluation for Peer Academy, for one of the organisational skill-sharing Academies they’d launched with a Public Sector client.

I had the privilege of speaking to a range of participants, and my head was so full of amazing insights after these interviews, as I asked about 4 questions in 30 minutes, and sat back listening and writing notes.

Tuning in to these people and hearing their energy and enthusiasm for the Academy was excellent, but of course it didn’t really generate particular insights. But then, in one interview, one of the participants said:

“I shared my own story to open the session, and talked about where I grew up, and how that place affected the way I think about the world. Then I asked the group to do the same.”

This hit me like a tonne of bricks. It was so simple, but really quite profound as a way to connect with her audience, prior to launching into a session about ‘Spatial Data in Policymaking’.

It went in the right hand column in note form, and I leant forward and asked gently “can you tell me more about that? What happened next?”.

I’ll spare you the details, but essentially it gave rise to an amazing conversation about place, spaces, and how ‘thinking spatially’ would change the way public servants and politicians created policy.

What it also did, was point toward a pattern around the importance of Stories as a means to create engaging learning experiences. Whilst we’d lightly touched on this during the training for these workshop hosts, it hadn’t been something we’d deeply worked into the fabric of the training. However, with this little nugget of gold, we have a new thread in the training package for peer-to-peer skill sharing networks, which may just make it all the more impactful a product. When you amplify that across all the peer learning workshops in the Public Sector, you’re talking about a pretty profound cultural intervention.

So what?

Why not draw a line? A single, vertical line. Then start listening a little more for the future that wants to emerge from other people’s hopes, dreams and experiences?

Extra Reading

Since writing this piece, a colleague pointed me toward another recent article penned by Buster Benson last week — check out “Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet