How to Handle Your Own Confirmation Bias During Military Transition

(Peter Alfred Hess)

Question: Ever since I turned in my separation papers, I have worried about my civilian career. I questioned whether employers were going to understand the work I did in the Army. I didn't think I would make friends and professional connections. I suspected that I'd have to accept a job of much lower rank and status than my military one.

Sure enough, in the past three years since I left the Army, my worst fears have been confirmed. Should I have stayed in?

Answer: The decision to stay in the military should take into account many conditions, options and factors in your life and professional journey. What you describe, however, could be more of an issue with confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias occurs when we intentionally seek out, refer to and interpret information, situations and theories that confirm our beliefs or values. Confirmation bias is not harmful unless you seek out only information that confirms your worst fears and beliefs -- which harms you in turn.

Then confirmation bias can lead you to make poor choices, eliminate healthy opportunities and form restrictive relationships.

Research shows that the need to seek out information that reinforces our beliefs comes from two cognitive mechanisms:

  • Challenge avoidance: We don't want to find out that we are wrong.
  • Reinforcement seeking: We want to find out that we are right.

When Confirmation Bias Becomes a Problem

If you believe that your military-to-civilian transition will be a negative experience, that you'll struggle a lot and face many challenges, you may inevitably find people, situations and events that confirm your worst fears and suspicions. Then, your transition will become a negative, unnecessarily difficult and unpleasant process.

How this can manifest:

  • You apply to jobs you're not qualified for, repeatedly get rejected and then tell yourself no one will hire someone like you (prior military), as you suspected. Even when offered feedback from a hiring manager about your lack of qualifications, you reject their suggestions ("perhaps you'd be better suited for a more junior-level position") and tell yourself employers don't like veterans.
  • You approach job fairs, career events and networking opportunities with a negative attitude -- assuming it's all a waste of time -- and turn people away with your angry approach. This confirms your belief that the people outside of the military are overly competitive, self-focused and unwilling to help you.

Where Confirmation Bias Can Be Positive

There are situations in which confirmation bias is healthy and helpful. When you are clear about your beliefs and values, you can project those views outward and attract others who feel similarly and who want to help you. When your beliefs are grounded in fact (and not fear), they can also drive you toward positive action, open-minded thinking and constructive experiences.

How this can manifest:

  • You view your transition as a process, not an event, and therefore you believe you will have ups and downs. Then, as successes occur, you keep them in perspective and disappointments aren't seen as devastating. Rather, you learn to take things in stride, as you expected, and you'll have happy times and frustrating ones alike.
  • You believe and anticipate you'll need to learn a lot about your new job, and when you are given constructive feedback, you don't take it personally or feel attacked. Instead, you analyze the feedback in the context of helping you be a better worker, thus growing your value to the team and enhancing a positive experience of working with you.

Confirmation bias pulls you toward the beliefs and values you hold valuable. If those beliefs are unfounded or based on misinformation (stereotypes, prejudice or inaccurate information), you limit the opportunities you'll attract, and your focus becomes artificially narrow.

Instead, if you can check your beliefs when they pose challenges, you will find more opportunities. Ask yourself: Are you seeking situations that confirm your worst fears? Or are you evaluating each opportunity and roadblock as an opportunity to learn?

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