In the 1960s, an English psychologist called Peter Wason noticed something interesting about human behaviour: people are usually happy to believe something, as long as they can find any evidence at all to support that belief. You may be thinking that this doesn’t sound too terrible; after all, if they’ve found evidence, what’s the problem? However, this can lead us to making mistakes.

Wason ran a series of experiments, where he would tell the participants that he had a rule in his mind. He told them that he would show them a series of numbers, and that he wanted them to then guess the rule in his head, and give him examples illustrating that rule. He would let them know if their example conformed or not to the rule.

The series of numbers could have been: 2, 4, 6.

People thought they’d sussed out the rule straight away and came back with examples like 6, 8, 10 or 20, 22, 24. Someone really enterprising might say 3, 5, 7. All of these illustrations conformed to the rule in Wason’s head. And so, people thought they knew the rule – it was a series of numbers, two digits apart.

Unfortunately, this was not the rule in Wason’s head. The rule was: any series of increasing numbers. The series 50, 99, 1 zillion would have satisfied the rule just as well.

Wason found that most participants in his experiments only tried number sequences that proved their hypothesis, and only a few subjects actually tried to come up with a sequence that would disprove it. In other words, they wouldn’t come back to the tester and say, “How about 5, 3, 1?” At which point, the tester would let them know that this didn’t conform to the rule, therefore giving them more clarity as to what the rule might actually be.

Wason called this confirmation bias.

Essentially, confirmation bias says that people actively look for and choose evidence that supports what they already believe. And, equally, they’ll have a tendency to reject or ignore any data or information that refutes what they already believe.

You can probably already start to see how this relates to consultation.

In any consultation, both management and reps (and I include both employee reps and union reps here) will go in with an idea in their mind of what the other group is thinking. In many TUPE consultations, reps who are new to TUPE are very worried because they believe redundancy is the next step. In my experience, this is not often the case as the new company want them to hit the ground running, with as little disruption as possible.

But imagine if you go into a consultation with that assumption in your mind – the questions that you as a rep ask will be aimed at confirming that hypothesis. You may therefore miss something entirely different that is important for people to know.

Management worry that reps will think their decision-making is terrible or that they’re psychopathic monsters who don’t care about employees. Again, imagine going into consultation with that frame of mind: as a manager, you may therefore shape all your communication around dispelling those fears, and not provide enough information on other important areas of change.

One of the best ways to counter confirmation bias is to make sure the consultation stays focused on the strategic narrative, the long-term survival of the business, and stay away from personal questions (“what’s going to happen to me?” “why me?”).

Some key questions to ask then, whether you are a manager or a rep:

  1. What happens if we don’t do this?
  2. What were the other options?
  3. Why were those options rejected?

Jasmine Gartner is an IPA Associate