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Decision Making and Confirmation Bias

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Confirmation bias is defined as a tendency to look for information regarding a topic that supports the individual’s view.

A key study conducted by O’brien and Ellsworth (2019) aims to evaluate whether confirmation bias has an influence on decision-making regarding criminal investigations. The methodologies that have been used within this study are questionnaires and statistics. In the first study, thirty-six men and seventy-two women conducted a questionnaire after reading a case based on a shooting of a man that consisted of interviews and other sources that were documented in the investigation. After reviewing the results, the participants that were not asked to write who they thought had committed the crime halfway through the experiment failed to identify the evidence that shows it wasn’t the suspect they thought it was. Therefore, this shows that confirmation bias did influence the result because participants chose to ignore the evidence that challenges their initial theory. One positive that can be taken from this piece of methodology is that questionnaires are one of the most reliable sources available to collect data. The reason for this is because the participants can answer the questions without anybody being able to influence their answer. However, a limitation to the use of questionnaires is a lack of internal validity. Middleton (2019) defines internal validity as “the degree of confidence that the causal relationship being tested is trustworthy and not influenced by other factors or variables”. Therefore, the use of questionnaires in this study could lack internal validity because it may not have fully answered the researcher’s aim.

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The first finding from the key study is that confirmation bias does have an influence when gathering evidence and convicting criminals in a criminal investigation. The reason for this is because when reflecting on my study it is clear from the results of the methodology that once an individual believes they know who the offender is they only look for evidence to support that outcome. As a result of this, a second finding from the key study was that there is a lack of training given to investigators when gathering evidence.

A study conducted by McGeorge (2019) supports my finding which states that confirmation bias does influence a criminal investigation. In this study, several undergraduate students were given information regarding a case that they would later create questions to conduct an interview. During the interview, confirmation bias was shown by the interviewer because they tended to only ask questions that confirmed their first hypothesis when gathering the information on the suspect. A positive to this study using students is that it gives another public perception from a different age group that may have different opinions to adults. While this may be true, one limitation to using students in research is that they may use response bias. Response bias is defined as an individual responding to an interviewer with what they think they want to hear. Therefore, this would hurt the research because the data would become invalid. Adams-Quackenbush (2018) is one researcher that supports the previous explanation as to why confirmation bias occurs in suspect interviews. Adams-Quackenbush (2018) identified “confirmation bias in an investigative interview generally occurs when the interviewer holds a presumption of guilt about the suspect and then sets out to find evidence of that guilt” Therefore, due to the similarity in explanations, this could be the reason as to why many interviews are conducted in an unsatisfactory manner.

Ask (2005) conducted a study with the use of qualitative data to support the view that confirmation bias influences decision-making in criminal investigations. In this study, several participants gathered a hypothesis on the case in which they were later provided with evidence to challenge their theory. Regardless of the evidence to challenge their first hypothesis, the participants only focused on the evidence that supports their initial thoughts. Therefore, many investigators that participated in this study used confirmation bias to come to their decision. A positive to the use of qualitative data is that it encourages the participants to expand on their responses and explain why they believe this. A limitation to qualitative data is it generally experiments on fewer people. This is a disadvantage compared to other methodology because it may not answer the researcher’s aim due to the limited variety of responses from the participants. Maegherman (2019) supported this view when stating “people have a natural tendency to try to confirm their current theory, and so often disproving evidence is disregarded or not considered”. This author went on to further explain that this may be the case because people avoid finding out that what they thought was wrong.

Rassin (2018) was a researcher that used questionnaires to examine whether confirmation bias influences decision-making. In this study, the participants were given a case to read, determine the suspect’s guilt, and then asked to choose from a list as to what investigative measures they would take, some of which challenged their initial hypothesis. When reflecting on the results of this study, the results showed that the participants chose the evidence that supported their initial decision of the suspect’s guilt. One positive taken from this study is that the methodology of questionnaires enables the researcher to conduct the study on a large number of people. Therefore, this could increase the validity of the study because it will hold stronger evidence that more people are suspectable to confirmation bias. However, a disadvantage of this study is that the participants received course credits as an incentive. This may influence the validity of this study because it may make the participants develop social desirability bias when answering the questions. Grimm (2010) defines social desirability bias as “social desirability bias refers to the tendency of research subjects to give socially desirable responses instead of choosing responses that are reflective of their true feelings”. Therefore, the participants may have adjusted their answers to what they think the researcher would want them to say. Forensic pathways (2019) is an author that supports this point. Forensic pathways (2019) stated, “if the initial contact at the scene tells the investigating officer that it is a suicide, then the investigating officer might anticipate finding a suicide”. From this statement, it can be inferred that the researcher believes that confirmation bias is present when making decisions. The same researcher went on to further state that confirmation bias is so common due to it being easier to deal with mentally.

Juslin (2018) was one researcher that partially disagrees that confirmation bias influences decision making. An interview was conducted within this study to gather evidence to question if a decision that a police officer or investigator makes triggers confirmation bias during an interview. In this study, numerous cases were given to several participants to decide whether they are going to convict the suspect with the information they have or choose to receive more information, in which most of the participants chose to convict. From the interviews conducted, the results showed the participants that gathered more information reduced the amount of confirmation. Therefore, this suggests that this researcher believes that confirmation bias does influence but training minimizes. Juslin (2018) went on to further state that another suggestion to reduce confirmation bias during interviews is to have another police officer or investigator present. A positive to this is that it would help minimize confirmation bias during an interview because one interviewer may see the case from a different perspective. On the other hand, a limitation to this study is that not all participants may have had the required skills to conduct an interview. Therefore, some interviews may hold their own biases on a subject and limit the data that can be collected from this methodology.

Bammer (2010) is a second researcher who believes confirmation bias does influence decision making however, reducing the amount of time pressure on investigators minimizes confirmation bias occurring. This researcher has used qualitative data as the methodology to gather evidence to support this view. This study aimed to identify how to deal with uncertainties when dealing with a serious crime. Bammer (2010) stated, “decisions regarding intelligence collection, interpretation of available information, and courses of action are made in a context characterized not only by time pressure and high stakes but also severe data limitations and data overload, all of which create uncertainty”. From this quotation, it can be inferred that the researcher believes that if pressures were taken off investigators it would allow them to fully assess the evidence from all perspectives. A limitation to this study is it doesn’t use other methodology to support this view such as asking investigators their opinion on the pressures of the job and how it affects them.

A final researcher that partially disagrees is Liden (2018) who conducted a role-play to examine whether confirmation bias is reduced by changing the decision-maker between arrest and prosecution. In the study, the participants were asked to act out a scenario and then decide whether they believe they should arrest or not arrest the suspect. The results from the study showed that once they had decided to arrest the suspect, confirmation bias was shown due to only searching and providing evidence that shows that the suspect was guilty. Further, in the study, Liden (2018) explains that they believe confirmation bias does influence decision making however, having more experienced investigators minimizes the risk. By this, it is meant that having more experienced investigators on a case gives a higher chance of one of them looking into evidence to challenge what the other investigator believes. One positive to this methodology is that they have face evidence to show that when several prosecutors or investigators work together it reduces the risk of confirmation bias occurring. However, one limitation to this methodology is that it is only executed on a limited number of people and therefore it may not answer the researcher’s aim. One suggestion for this is to carry out several other experiments to show that more people believe this hypothesis to be true.

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