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Keep an Open Mind

Beware of Confirmation Bias

By Gene Benson


One of the most difficult things for us humans to do is to admit that we were wrong. It’s not a personal flaw. We are genetically wired that way. We often refer to the phenomenon in the behavioral sciences as confirmation bias. Once we make a decision, especially an important one, our brains work hard to find evidence that our decision was a good one.

Did you ever know someone who got a “great bargain” on a used car only to have the car break down frequently requiring costly repairs? Chances are good that the person kept putting more and more money into repairs while still believing that the car had been a real bargain.

Pilots are not immune from confirmation bias. We are subject to those same forces searching for evidence that our decision was correct. Unfortunately for the car buyer, it is often impossible to turn around and “unbuy” the car. But fortunately for pilots, it is often possible to correct a flawed decision if we can overcome our desire to justify it.

In the August issue of Vectors for Safety, Brandon’s blog addressed unintentional flight into IMC and provided some sobering statistics. It is likely that some, if not most, of those pilots made a flawed decision to begin the flight on that day but did not take remedial action due to confirmation bias. How many of them convinced themselves that conditions would improve in the next few miles or that the sky was looking brighter ahead? Turning back, asking for assistance from ATC would require admittance that a flawed decision had been made.

Confirmation bias applies to much more than just flying into bad weather. Noticing an oil leak during the preflight inspection, deciding that it is minor, beginning a flight, noticing unusually high oil temperature but rationalizing it as due to being caused by the hot day is another example. Yet another is realizing that the airplane is too high on final approach but deciding that the landing can be salvaged, floating two-thirds of the way down the runway while still trying to get the airplane slowed down rather than executing a go-around, and finally running off the end into the brush.

The list of examples could go on. We can take a big leap forward by being aware of our confirmation bias and resolve to keep an open mind as we fly. Any pilot can make a bad decision. What defines us as superior pilots is our willingness to admit that we were wrong and take the necessary steps to mitigate the effects of our decision before it is too late.