How curiosity can help deal with confirmation bias and disagreements

What can we as user researchers and designers learn from meditation? I reflect on the words of Andy Puddicombe, a meditation coach and the co-founder of Headspace. He says, " ...observe your mind and life with curiosity, rather than preconceived notions, or certainties." Read on to discover how curiosity can help minimize confirmation bias and listen better during disagreements.
A smiley being curious. Art by author.

Last week I was training a team on running a user study, and a design engineer said, “All I want to find out is if they have issue X with this version of the design.” And then they described the kind of problems they expected to observe.

Their focus on the issue is justified because that’s what they are trying to solve. But a user study might reveal things we are not asking or even are aware of. And these are important because they could be our blind spots. So I asked my colleague to go into the study with curiosity and openness. He laughed and told me, “Okay, yes, I will shut up during the study” :D. We both laughed and talked more about curiosity afterward.

And curiosity is where today’s quote is leading us. It comes from Andy Puddicombe, a meditation* coach and the co-founder of Headspace. Andy says,

“Approach meditation with openness, and observe your mind and life with curiosity, rather than preconceived notions, or certainties.”

I know this is not a UXR quote, but I find it to be a good reminder for user research and life. Here are two places where curiosity can be especially useful: Avoiding confirmation bias and during disagreements.

Curiosity & confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is our tendency to search for, interpret, or remember information such that it confirms what we already believe to be true. This can be satisfying (“I was right!”) or relieving (thank heavens, I wasn’t wrong!) but it can often be incredibly boring and restricting too because we learn nothing new.

Curiosity can help us break this prison of certainty, and here are some ways to invite curiosity to your user research.

a) Spotting confirmation bias

Awareness is the first step to any change. So for your next study, list all the assumptions/hypotheses or certainties you have before the study. You can also do this with your team. After the study, compare what you found with your initial list. See if you found anything new or different than your assumptions. If you didn’t find anything new, try examining if confirmation bias is at play.

b) Minimizing confirmation bias

If you are very closely involved in the design, I would highly recommend conducting the study with someone who is not (closely) involved with the project. If possible, let them lead the study or at the very least, let them lead discussions.

 While defining the research questions and designing the study, describe the project at a high level and ask the ‘external’ user researcher questions like what do you think? what would you do here? And listen with an open mind.

During debriefs, first let the ‘external’ researcher describe what they think happened, be curious about what they find to be important or noteworthy. Ask questions like, “What do you think? Did anything stand out to you? Was anything new? Was anything especially interesting, why?”

Curiosity and disagreements

Another place where curiosity is surprisingly helpful is during disagreements.
At work and in life, we can encounter opposing views in many situations – feedback from our boss or colleagues, in meetings, user studies, discussions. . . and often we get carried away during disagreements – feeling angry, hurt, or cornered.

Listening to things we oppose activates our amygdala, the part of our brain associated with automatic fear responses. So, during disagreements, instead of listening, we are overwhelmed with the instinctive need to run away, hide, or fight back.

This is counter-productive because listening to opposing views is essential for flourishing and expanding our knowledge and views.

Curiosity can be very helpful here, as advised by Kate Murphy, the author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters (my favorite book on listening).

Kate advises us to become curious instead of getting angry. Switching our brain to curiosity activates higher-order thinking. And this calms down our amygdala and helps us listen better.

  • So during disagreements, ask people to elaborate and be curious about why they are saying what they are saying. Because often what someone is saying is less important than why are they saying it. Ask not “How dare they?” but rather “How did they get to this conclusion?”
  • Also, being curious about my own reactions and why I am reacting so strongly to words from someone already helps me calm down. It’s a pretty interesting experience when I can manage it :D.

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