I used to play a lot of chess. I was never very good. My U.S. Chess Federation ranking hovered around 1200. In other words, not only did Bobby Fischer have little to worry about, neither did my cousin, my friends, and even, on particularly bad days, my dog. But that didn’t stop me.
Like the serious chess players, I spent interminable amounts of time with my head bowed over the board pondering each move. It didn’t help much. But I continued to do it because protocol dictated that I sit perfectly still ruminating, contemplating, deliberating, cogitating, and in general, looking the part of the keenly focused chess genius.
All these years later, I finally realized one of the roots of my failure. My thinking process was skewed. Rather than exploring alternatives and focusing on the impact of each move, I was spending foot-pounds of mental energy proving to myself that my initial gut feelings were correct. If my first thought was to move my king’s knight to Q4, then I would look for everything I could to support that decision — even if I noticed the queen bishop’s pawn could indiscriminately destroy said knight.
In psychology and cognitive science, this tendency is known as confirmation bias. And auditors fall into the trap as easily as anyone else. No significant findings will emerge because the data shows the audited department is meeting all its key performance indicators. The prime suspect for committing fraud is the administrative assistant because he is implicated in the initial referral. The audit will reveal significant issues for the department because all previous reviews have included significant issues. We don’t need to talk to the client about correcting the identified issues because the solution is obvious.
Looking at these examples, confirmation bias seems obvious. But it can sneak up when we least suspect it. Take, for example, conducting interviews. Many experts say people develop their first impressions about someone within as little as 30 seconds. In fact, one study, conducted in 2006 by psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, found they occur in one-tenth of a second. That’s how quickly confirmation bias can take hold, potentially clouding any subsequent facts or evidence that may arise from the interview process.
When we are knee-deep in audit work — when time constraints, budget issues, and the pressures of just getting things done loom over our heads — we take shortcuts. Shortcuts are not necessarily harmful or disadvantageous. Often, gut feel is really just another term for experience. But we have to recognize the shortcuts and take time to ensure our gut reactions are not rooted in confirmation bias.
One of the keys to critical thinking is to take that extra time and to make sure we are thinking about how we think. The last thing we want to do is sacrifice a knight just because it was the first move we saw.