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Brands, breeds, bright ideas – confirmation bias in action

Preventing pests and diseases from entering a property through biosecurity tactics will prevent their establishment and minimise the costs of managing them.
Photo: GRDC

In our daily lives, we are constantly bombarded with ideas and opinions via social media and everyday conversations offering us easy access to information­ – whether it is credible or not.

This constant stream of information makes it easy to identify and connect with people who agree with us, and to select particular news as evidence of what we want to hear to support an opinion.

This is confirmation bias in action – the tendency to seek out and agree with information that supports existing beliefs and ignore or discredit information that opposes them.

It is a learned, automatic reaction, either positive or negative. It is unconscious. It is an inevitable part of the culture we grow up in, and not something we choose.

Confirmation bias in action

Unconscious bias could also be working against us when it comes to bias in the choices we make. The most obvious examples of confirmation bias are expressions of opinions, beliefs and knowledge as fact, in areas such as politics, religion and sport.

In agriculture it is associated with a preference for certain brands, breeds, bright ideas and even accepting farming practices such as biosecurity. It is easy to disregard bias in decision-making if everything is seemingly working as it should for you and other farmers.

Science has proven that preventing pests and diseases from entering a property through numerous biosecurity tactics will prevent the establishment of pests and diseases and minimise the costs of managing them.

Some farmers choose to ignore science and follow tradition, gut feel, the crowd, a neighbour, an influencer or an expert’s blog, all based on so-called ‘evidence’ that supports the maintenance of existing beliefs and practices.

Some examples of where confirmation bias prevents you implementing biosecurity practices:

  • Inspecting and cleaning vehicles and machinery on and off a property is time-consuming and messy, so many farmers  decide not to do it. It is a proven method to stop the spread of pests and diseases and should never be ignored; and
  • If you do not have a weevil problem, you do not stop cleaning grain spills, storage and grain handling equipment, or stop using protectants and fumigants. As a precaution, these methods should always be part of your routine.

As farmers, it is important to interpret data accurately. Confirmation bias rears its ugly head more often than most of us would like to admit and may lead to costly mistakes.

Avoiding bias

There are several ways to resist built-in confirmation bias. Bias is likely to affect decision-making when made quickly or under pressure. We are less likely to act on bias when we slow down and control our thoughts, consciously overcoming first impressions and the biases that come with them.

Pause and write down the reasons for and against a decision. Test and research, and carefully consider the problem along with any long-term implications. If biosecurity protocols are part of farming practices, with an established vision-led plan, adopting and adhering to new or different biosecurity practices will be easier.

Handy tools to keep confirmation bias in check:

  • do not rely on opinions to make decisions – base them on scientific data;
  • do not ignore information simply because it conflicts with your current thinking;
  • listen to the perspectives and insights of those outside of your bubble, as they might have the necessary expertise;
  • do not stubbornly dig in on an issue. Find an expert who disagrees with you and listen to their strongest arguments;
  • consider the publication date of information and think about what the authors’ intentions are and their training or qualifications on the topic. Find other reliable sources of information to verify claims made; and
  • involve a devil’s advocate or an outsider to challenge your thinking on a topic.

Biosecurity recommendations are backed by rigorous, ongoing scientific research, but do involve mindset and practice change for implementation.

Even if others are not observing recommended biosecurity practices, it is important to clean down on and off paddocks, and to monitor grain storage for quality and insect control.

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