Confirmation bias and technical debt

Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias [Kahneman 2011]. It’s the human tendency to favor and seek only information that confirms our preconceptions, or to avoid information that disconfirms them. For example, the homogeneity of cable news channel audiences, and the alignment between preconceptions of the audience and the slant of the newscast for that channel, are results of confirmation bias.

Third stage ignition, sending the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) to Mars in December, 1998
Computer-generated image of the third stage ignition, sending the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) to Mars in December, 1998. The spacecraft eventually broke up in the Martian atmosphere as a result of what is now often called the “metric mix-up.” The team at Lockheed Martin that constructed the spacecraft and wrote its software used Imperial units for computing thrust data. But the team at JPL that was responsible for flying the spacecraft was using metric units. The mix-up was discovered after the loss of the spacecraft by the investigation panel established by NASA.
One of the many operational changes deployed as a result of this loss was increased use of reviews and inspections. While we do not know why reviews and inspections weren’t as thorough before the loss of the MCO as they are now, one possibility is the effects of confirmation bias in assessing the need for reviews and inspections. Image courtesy Engineering Multimedia, Inc., and U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Confirmation bias causes technical debt by biasing the information on which decision makers base decisions involving technical debt. Most people in these roles have objectives they regard as having priority over eliminating technical debt. This causes them to bias their searches for information about technical debt in favor of information that would support directly the achievement of those primary objectives. They tend, for example, to discount warnings of technical debt issues, to underfund technical debt assessments, and to set aside advice regarding avoiding debt formation in current projects.

For example, anyone determined to find reasons to be skeptical of the need to manage technical debt need only execute a few Google searches. Searching for there is no such thing as technical debt yields about 300,000 results at this writing; technical debt is a fraud about 1.6 million; and technical debt is a bad metaphor about 3.7 million. Compare this to technical debt which yields only 1.6 million. A skeptic wouldn’t even have to read any of these pages to come away convinced that technical debt is at best a controversial concept. This is, of course, specious reasoning, if it’s reasoning at all. But it does serve to illustrate the potential for confirmation bias to contribute to preventing or limiting rational management of technical debt.

Detecting confirmation bias in oneself is extraordinarily difficult because confirmation bias causes us to (a) decide not to search for data that would reveal confirmation bias; and (b) if data somehow becomes available, to disregard or to seek alternative explanations for it if that data tends to confirm the existence of confirmation bias. Moreover, another cognitive bias known as the bias blind spot causes individuals to see the existence and effects of cognitive biases much more in others than in themselves [Pronin 2002].

Still, the enterprise would benefit from monitoring the possible existence and effects of confirmation bias in decisions with respect to allocating resources to managing technical debt. Whenever decisions are made, we must manage confirmation bias risk.

References

[Kahneman 2011] Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Macmillan, 2011.

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Cited in:

[Pronin 2002] Emily Pronin, Daniel Y. Lin, and Lee Ross. “The bias blind spot: Perceptions of bias in self versus others.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28.3 (2002): 369-381.

Available: here; Retrieved: July 10, 2017

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