Last week, the CONNECT2Lead Blog tackled the topic of information overload. One way to control the volume on information is to be more discerning about the sources you rely on. By scrutinizing sources, you’ll save time. You’ll also protect your credibility and build your leadership effectiveness. That’s because people rely on you for quality information, and credible leaders are selective about what they access in making decisions.
To be sure you’re gathering quality information from reliable sources, always consider these five variables:
- Who is the writer or speaker?
- Does he or she have relevant expertise and/or first-hand experience in this matter?
- Are his/her claims adequately supported?
- Is the source presenting multiple perspectives so you can draw your own conclusion?
- Is the source seeking to provide information objectively or to influence you a certain way?
Complicating this simple evaluation is your own unconscious bias which could impair your credibility and leadership effectiveness.
Your leadership effectiveness VS your preferred information sources
Your own natural inclinations may be working against you, though, and impairing the quality and variety of information you access or consider. Here are three insidious factors that subconsciously affect what sources you turn to and how you filter information.
Confirmation Bias is something we automatically respond to as we seek, filter, and accept information. We tend to select sources that generally support our own ideas and ideologies. We conduct online searches using phrases that are more likely to produce information that supports our preconceived notions. We hastily reject information that contradicts what we already believe is true. Confirmation bias is extremely self-limiting as it precludes us from getting a full picture and prevents us from seeking a diversity of thought and input.
Familiarity Bias is similar. It’s our natural preference to accept what is already known, comfortable or familiar and to reject anything that deviates from the familiar. We are more confident in what’s familiar, so we give it extra (undeserved) weight when evaluating options or information. This, too, is self-limiting because it keeps us from being exposed to what’s new, what’s emerging, and what could be different. Going back to the same sources over and over again, for example, makes us vulnerable to being limited by the filters they employ (because of their own confirmation bias, agenda, etc.).
With confirmation bias and/or familiarity bias, many people find themselves trapped in echo chambers. Having rejected views that don’t fit in with their own and selecting only the sources that align with their thinking, these people only hear echoes and affirmations of their own ideas. They may even get to a point where they don’t realize there are other points of view.
Bandwagon Effect is a compelling phenomenon. Humans want to go along with others and can easily be swept up by popular opinion (or the perception of popular opinion). When “everyone” is doing something, we fear missing out or looking different. That feeling causes people to do things they normally wouldn't do, even when they don’t understand the purpose for doing it. This video shows a social experiment that demonstrates the power of the bandwagon effect. Because the desire to be like others is so strong, advertisers and politicians often imply that “everyone” or a vast majority is adopting a product or idea. This effort is meant to sway others who will go along without even questioning the claim.
3 traits to overcome the factors that derail your discernment
To overcome your natural inclinations and biases, access these three traits (which come in handy, too, for your leadership effectiveness in other ways, too!). Use these to evaluate information, especially when you catch yourself succumbing to confirmation bias, familiarity bias, or the bandwagon effect.
- Be more curious. Ask more questions like the ones in the opening section of this article. Don’t accept what sources say at face value. Understand the pathway they’ve taken to reach their conclusions. Look for the other side(s) of any position. Don’t assume that what you hear, see or read is all there is to know.
- Display humility. Admit to yourself that you don’t have all the answers and that your biases aren’t necessarily accurate. Ask for others’ input and really listen to them. Listen without letting your mind race ahead to construct arguments defending your own position.
- Demonstrate courage. When in a group that is moving in one accord toward a decision, challenge the assumptions. Play devil’s advocate to draw out other ideas and perspectives. Don’t go along with plans you don’t understand. Instead, be bold enough to ask “why” and to get clarity that others may also be lacking.
The point isn’t to be a contrarian or to slow down your decisions and actions. It’s to improve the critical thinking that goes into your own and group decisions so that you improve decision quality and save time in the long run. These traits will help you do that and improve your own and others’ confidence in the decisions made.
Understanding the differences in information sources
To sort out what information is presented with a bias and what information is closer to objective, you have to consider the source. Here are three questions to ask so you’ll evaluate sources more carefully.
Is This a Primary, Secondary or Tertiary Source?
The closer you get to the original research, data, opinion, or conclusions, the more likely you are to be getting the complete and unfiltered version. Knowing and recognizing the difference will help you be more discerning about information.
- Primary sources are those offering first-hand evidence or perspectives. These are the researchers, witnesses, or experts who first saw something or conducted their own analysis. A scientist presenting her own empirical research is an example of a primary source.
- Secondary sources are those that report on and/or interpret information provided by primary sources. Secondary sources filter for “sound bites” and generalize for mass appeal. They also edit for brevity and may select information that fits their own agenda or point of view. A journalist reporting on a scientific study is an example of a secondary source.
- Tertiary sources compile and summarize information from a variety of sources. Most information we encounter comes from tertiary sources who have amassed inputs from primary sources and the experts, reporters, and others who have reacted to those primary sources. Encyclopedias and most news stories present information in this way. Like secondary sources, tertiary sources may have their own confirmation biases in play, affecting the objectivity of what they filter for and include.
Is This an Academic or Popular Source?
You may consider academic literature boring, too difficult to access, or overkill for what you need. But this is where you’ll find most primary sources and a more complete and balanced treatment of the subject. For very important information, don’t rule these out!
The main differences between popular (widely circulated) and academic sources include the purpose of the information being shared, the process for determining what’s published, and the authority/ reliability of the information.
- Academic journals include articles about research done by primary sources. They also include citations of others’ research for comparison and/or conclusions. The information is presented without story-telling or narratives that deviate from the facts and findings. The purpose of academic literature is to inform other scholars and experts in a particular field. Authors are considered experts in their field. A rigorous editing process is used and usually includes peer review and rewrites to include a complete and unbiased explanation of findings.
- Popular sources include most books, social media sites, blogs, newspapers, podcasts, broadcasters, and other widely accessible outlets. Information from these sources is lightly edited because timely distribution prohibits rigor. Popular sources aim for appeal more than for completeness and for human interest more than factual accuracy. The information found in popular sources comes from a wide variety of people, not just those with expertise. Opinions and unverified claims are not excluded from popular sources.
Is This from the Mainstream Media or Alternative Media?
This is a newer distinction, made possible by the proliferation of outlets and the ease of publishing content.
- Mainstream Media (MSM) is also known as traditional or legacy media. The majority of news we consume comes from the MSM which distributes information through television, print, radio, and online outlets. In the U.S., five companies control over 90% of the news and entertainment outlets in the nation: Disney, Comcast, Warner, FoxNewsCorp, and ViacomCBS. These conglomerates are profit-focused and wield tremendous power to influence the masses.
- Alternative Media is also known as non-corporate, underground, independent, and citizen journalism. Many in alternative media shun profit in an effort to demonstrate that they have no conflict of interest. Independent podcasts, blogs, vlogs, livestreams, ezines, and newspapers offer themselves as alternatives to the MSM. Many of these sources seek to serve audiences that feel underserved by the mainstream.
There is no guarantee that a big-name outlet is more reliable than a small, independent one. It would not be accurate to say that academic sources are always more credible than popular ones. And while primary sources are generally more complete than tertiary ones, this would also require scrutiny because all sources can be biased and may have an agenda to consider in your evaluation.
No matter what the source, apply these five criteria in your evaluation. Credible sources present information that is:
When you build the skills and habits for scrutinizing information, you’ll save time and make better-informed decisions. You won’t be led astray by others’ hidden agendas and biases. You’ll improve your leadership effectiveness, be more confident in your actions and decisions, and inspire others to do the same.
Want more on this topic?
Here are three next steps you can take:
- The CRAAP test provides a checklist for evaluating information. The questions posed in this checklist will help you remain neutral when you decide what information you can rely on to maintain and build your leadership effectiveness.
- In next week’s CONNECT2Lead Blog post, we’ll take a deeper dive into source credibility and how to access quality information.
Or you can also watch a series of videos about critical thinking skills that include and complement the ideas in this article.