Confirmation bias is perhaps the greatest nemesis of an investigator. It is a form of cognitive bias that involves favouring information that confirms previously existing beliefs. They not only impact how information is gathered but also influence how we interpret and recall information. For example, people who support or oppose a particular issue will not only seek information to support it they will also interpret news stories in a way that upholds their existing ideas. In an investigation, this can manifest itself in poor investigative interview questioning, and ‘edited’ notetaking.
In contemporary society many will only follow people on social media who share their viewpoints, watch the news, or read newspapers that reinforce their opinions, refuse to listen to an opposing opinion, or, critical in the world of investigation, not consider facts in a logical and rational manner.
There are a few reasons why it happens. One is that only seeking to confirm existing opinions helps limit the mental resources we need to use to make decisions. It also helps protect self-esteem by making people feel that their beliefs are accurate.
People on two sides of an issue can listen to the same story and walk away with different interpretations that they feel validates their existing point of view. This is often indicative that the confirmation bias is working to “bias” their opinions. It can lead to poor choices, an inability to listen to opposing views, even contribute to ‘othering’ those who hold different opinions. (Ack Verywellmind.com)
Our COO, Mick Confrey, wrote a short piece for Linked In on this topic based on vast experience conducting and managing workplace discipline and misconduct investigations, particularly focussed on how terminology can be destructive and create a dangerous false or misleading narrative.
The text of Operations Director Mick Confrey reflections is reproduced below:
“I have sat through numerous seminars on a variety of what I would describe as high stakes misconduct issues and have become increasingly concerned about the appropriate use of language when describing the parties in such investigations, with little or no understanding of the impact of the choice of language used.
The language used by an investigator underpins how they think and how they are perceived by those involved, potentially creating a dangerous false or misleading narrative that toxically influences the investigation that follows. When an investigator is assigned to a case, a narrative has already been set by the reporting person, and potentially influenced by persons involved in the process up to that point.
The investigator must step back from that established narrative, take a neutral stance, and investigate facts objectively and impartially to establish if, on the balance of probabilities, there is a case to answer or not.
Using terms such as ‘victim’ rather than the more neutral term ‘reporting party’, and ‘perpetrator’ rather than the more neutral term ‘responding party’, the investigator can potentially introduce confirmation bias and be led (consciously or unconsciously) into favouring the person perceived to have been wronged (the victim) and be less favourable to the person perceived to have done wrong (the perpetrator).
The investigator must ensure that both parties are treated equally and fairly whilst conducting the investigation. It may seem an obvious point, but any survey of employment tribunals will see many cases in which the process was not deemed to be a fair investigation due to the imbalance between inculpatory and exculpatory evidence gathered by the investigator.
Once the discipline process is complete and a decision has been made then understandably the person found to have been wronged might be referred to as the victim and the person found to have done wrong the perpetrator without fear of constructing a false narrative or undermining the ‘process’.
Where possible risk assessments should be conducted separately from the investigation to ensure objectivity and balance. Access to relevant welfare support should be made available to both parties at the earliest possible stage in the process, continue throughout, and in some cases beyond, the end of the process”.
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