Entrepreneurs are often trapped in a vicious circle of hope. Hope clouds judgement and can be what prevents the entrepreneur seeing things clearly and taking the appropriate decisions. Hope is so seducing that it’s what is used in most personal development or “get rich in x lessons” books. Hope is also so powerful and rewarding that it is fed by proofs generated by the confirmation bias, that is itself fueled by hope. Entrepreneurs must learn its underlying concepts and learn to get objective opinions from others.
Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs. [Skeptics Dictionnary]
Before talking about confirmation bias, let’s understand what is hope from a psychological point of view. Hope is one of the many mental defense mechanism we have that is triggered in order to disconnect us from hurtful emotions (anxiety, sadness, despair, ….). It uses thoughts to construct a positive scenario of the future. People often grab these thoughts as a life buoy to avoid the reality of the present moment. We usually hope for a better future when we are uncomfortable with the present. Hope is what drives many wantrepreneurs. Hope will make entrepreneurship’s book writers rich, not you. Happy people hope for the best, once, then stop thinking about it.
In order to fuel hope, you need proofs that what you see in the future is possible and is likely to happen. This is when the confirmation bias enters into action. Every single proof you see that makes your predictions credible is highlighted, while every single piece of evidence that it won’t is denied. Those proofs stimulate hope that itself forces you to suffer from the confirmation bias. It’s a vicious circle. One great example of the relationship between hope and the confirmation bias is seen with believers of the 2012 end of world event. They can point to you dozens of scientific studies that prove it will happen, ignoring the hundred other proofs that it won’t. One seducing thought in the 2012 case is that the event can potentially make them better than they are now. Hope is triggered by a desire for change and fueled by confirmation bias. Desire for change is not the only way to trigger hope. Any unwanted emotion, such as fear, can also be a very good motivator: some religions claim that if you are not a good practitioner, you won’t go to paradise, but burn in hell forever. With entrepreneurs the desire for change is the key to the process.
Conscious thinking is not the only factor: things get worse when we take into consideration theories of biological psychology. Desire to change is not the only motivator for hope. There is a physiological reward for the behavior. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University conducted experiments that showed that there is a direct link between hope and dopamine (pleasure hormone) releases in the brain. Studies even show that we get higher dopamine releases when there are more uncertainties. Uncertainties? That is certainly something that entrepreneurs can relate to.
The ability to cope with temporary difficulties is one of the entrepreneur’s required abilities. Too many people can’t go through what Seth Godin called The Dip. Defeatism, the opposite of hope, is one of the obvious failure factors in entrepreneurship. Often they decide to stop. They think their efforts are not worth it anymore. Defeatism works just like hope. Your judgment is biased and you see things from the negative side. It is also fueled by the confirmation bias in the same way.
Optimism is often suggested as a strategy to fight defeatism. It’s true that if you tend to be defeatist, hope can counter balance the feeling by replacing negative thoughts by positive ones. It’s positive psychology. And it’s even suggested by the Emotional Intelligence guru Daniel Goleman.
Having hope means that one will not give in to overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude, or depression in the face of difficult challenges or setbacks. [Daniel Goleman]
Just as defeatism must be avoided, hope can’t be a strategy on the long term. It can even hurt as much as defeatism. Do you remember how you felt after you really hoped that something would happen and it did not? You would be really surprised if you noted each prediction you make and compare them with what actually happened. Hope will play against you. It will hurt, it will hide a more concrete problem, and more importantly, it will bias your judgment.
Self awareness, again, is the key. To manage the process, consider hope (or defeatism) as a signal you must decode by being aware of the physical and psychological mechanisms. If we suspect we are biased, we must not believe entirely what we think and assess every hypothesis we make with realistic information. Market studies and/or customer development are ways to assess our assumptions, as well getting mentorships from more experienced people who have learnt the hard way. With some practice, you will be able to acquire the self awareness required to avoid being trapped in those loops. Be a mindful hacker.