How Do You Like to Receive Disconfirming Data?

April 22, 2011 //

April 22, 2011

By Pia Infante

An executive leadership coach I know often initiates a new client relationship with the question: “How do you like to receive disconfirming data?”

The irony being that most people don’t like to receive disconfirming data at all. Our brains process unexpected data by a) sounding an amygdala alarm bell throughout our nervous system or, as is so common, b) by not absorbing it at all, selectively taking in only what it expects to perceive.

I’m utterly fascinated by my own brain’s ability to skip over disconfirming data repeatedly – a.k.a., visualize me tripping over a newly placed chair in the living room an undisclosable number of times.

In a Wired Magazine article on the neuroscience of failure, where a study of lab experiments show a preponderance of the scenario where scientists go in “looking for x, but [invariably] find y,” Jonah Lehrer explores how disconfirming data and failed experiments are actually quite a rich place of learning.

Here are Jonah’s tips on How To Learn From Failure:

Check Your Assumptions
Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

Seek Out The Ignorant
Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

Encourage Diversity
If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

Beware of Failure Blindness
It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.

I see an application of this way of behaving in many other realms outside of science. I’m sure we in the philanthropic and non-profit sectors could truly benefit from checking our assumptions and expectations at the door, and seeking out disconfirming data.

Because the truth is, disconfirming data is like that chair I keep stubbing my toe on. Even if I don’t seek it out, or remember its existence, it will continue to just. be. there.


  1. The Whitman Institute on April 24, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Pia I liked this post. My own response to dis-confirming messages, often, is to rejoice. Donald Michaels taught me that the essence of a learning organization is a culture of embracing error and learning from mistakes. I try to model that both at work and in my life. I'm always ready to acknowledge my own mistakes. I encourage others to do the same. Of course some dis-confirming messages would doubtless overpower my capacity to do this. But it is a life practice — one that has served me as well as anything else I do.

    — Michael Lerner