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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
Confirmation Bias and Manufacturing Success

Today I was on Wikipedia reading an article on “Confirmation Bias”. The following were things that stood out:

“Experiments have shown that information is weighted more strongly when it appears early in a series, even when the order is unimportant. For example, people form a more positive impression of someone described as "intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious" than when they are given the same words in reverse order (#) This irrational primacy effect is independent of the primacy effect in memory in which the earlier items in a series leave a stronger memory trace(#). Biased interpretation offers an explanation for this effect: seeing the initial evidence, people form a working hypothesis that affects how they interpret the rest of the information”

(#) - Baron, Jonathan (2000), Thinking and deciding (3rd ed.), New York: Cambridge University Press

Confirmation biases can be used to explain why some beliefs remain when the initial evidence for them is removed (#1) This belief perseverance effect has been shown by a series of experiments using what is called the "debriefing paradigm": subjects read fake evidence for a hypothesis, their attitude change is measured, then the fakery is exposed in detail. Their attitudes are then measured once more to see if their belief returns to its previous level.

A typical finding is that at least some of the initial belief remains even after a full debrief (#3) In one experiment, subjects had to distinguish between real and fake suicide notes. The feedback was random: some were told they had done well while others were told they had performed badly. Even after being fully debriefed, subjects were still influenced by the feedback. They still thought they were better or worse than average at that kind of task, depending on what they had initially been told. (#4)

(#1) - Confirmation Bias; A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises", Review of General Psychology (Educational Publishing Foundation)

(#2) - "Shortcomings in the attribution process: On the origins and maintenance of erroneous social assessments", in Kahneman, Daniel; Slovic, Paul; Tversky, Amos, Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases, Cambridge University Press

(#3) - Kunda, Ziva (1999), Social Cognition: Making Sense of People, MIT Press,

(#4) - Ross, Lee; Lepper, Mark R.; Hubbard, Michael (1975), "Perseverance in self-perception and social perception: Biased attributional processes in the debriefing paradigm", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association

It got me thinking about the importance of manufacturing success in training prior to more “testing” drills and training. If the above is true, then the student is more likely to consider themselves able or incapable depending upon what their initial experiences are. If the student experiences failure initially, they are more likely to see themselves as likely to fail regardless of subsequent success. Seeing as mindset is the key component of combative functionality, the way we structure training in this regard would seem to be key.

In my dojo, the nature of the live drills starts very gently and progresses as the student progresses. This would seem to create a chain of success that is more likely to lead to strong self-belief. They are certainly tested, but hopefully in a way that does not produce negative self-belief; as could be the result if the training was “full on” at a time where they were not adequately ready to cope with it.

I would be interested to hear what others think about order in training and “manufacturing success”. Hopefully it will make for a thought provoking thread as all the various perspectives are shared.

All the best,


Jonathan Waller
Jonathan Waller's picture

I have found that it is also about framing, so they see, things that deviate from the appropriate as acceptable but not optimal, or would work in other situations rather than them framing things in the balck and white of Right and Wrong. Otherwise scaling the level, a gentle bump is better than a full speed car crash.

The bigger problem though in my experience, the sesne of inability or failure that a student brings in to the study with them. They have set in place a way of thinking, so anytime they do not do somehing successfully they see it as a confirmation of their inability etc. Another problem is that they have a inaccurate sense of the learning process and so set the base line of "success" higher than it needs to be and the line of "failure" lower.