Confirmation bias–“the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories”–is a cognitive error often found in the world of medicine. It occurs when a doctor rather quickly reaches a conclusion as to the nature of your medical condition and then orders tests, and then ignores evidence from the tests that contradicts their first diagnosis, proceeding with the treatment they first concluded was best for you. But confirmation bias occurs in all walks of life. Being a cognitive bias, it is not generally intentional, but it is nonetheless real and powerful.
I think we’ve been witnessing an instance of confirmation bias on the part of our city administration with regard to the siting of the proposed NewCAL facility. It is increasingly apparent to me and others watching the evolution of this project that the mayor and her department heads reached a certain “diagnosis” and “treatment” about the scope and siting of NewCAL. Then, they systematically interpreted evidence they collected in support of that plan, ignoring evidence that might raise doubts.
I will provide just one example of this bias in a second, but first I want to acknowledge that the Mayor has taken some (limited) steps to reopen the decision-making process. In her weekly email, she stated: “Last week I joined with voices from the Parks & Recreation Commission and some City Councilors to ask the Working Group to go back and re-explore some of the non-park sites, paying particular attention to the Newton Centre parking triangle, which had initially been set aside because it was too small. . . . We will compare the advantages and disadvantages of this site and Albemarle even as we continue to explore City owned sites and private properties across Newton.”
Several of us following this issue viewed this statement as not much of a re-opener, focused as it was mainly the parking triangle, as opposed to a full scale review of the scope and program of NewCAL. We fear that this is just a “process” to prove to the Parks and Recreation Commission that the Albemarle site is the “best.” But let’s see. (By the way, I’d be delighted if NewCAL were built in Newton Centre.)
Now, for the example of confirmation bias. I refer to the West Newton Armory, a 30,000 square foot building that is being offered for sale by the state to the city. The Mayor has made much of the potential use of this building for affordable housing, but has also stated that it might be used for other municipal purposes. (The purchase price for the former use would be $1 and for the latter, $1 million.).
In September (around the time the Albemarle decision was announced), the City Council’s Real Property Reuse Committee received a lengthy briefing package about the Armory from the Administration. The director of planning and development stated: “My initial recommendation, taking into consideration numerous factors including Newton’s great need for affordable housing and the costs associated with improving the property for a municipal use, is that the property should be made available for lease upon its acquisition to be redeveloped as 100% affordable housing. Nonetheless, as part of the Real Property Reuse Committee’s formal evaluation of the future use of the property, I would encourage the City Council’s Committee to evaluate potential municipal uses, including the aforementioned request by the City Clerk for archives, storage and a polling place.”
That recommendation was based, in part, on the conclusions of the public building commissioner, also included in the package: “In closing, the Armory is a beautiful building with great historical features and flexible floor plans. The building will require a significant renovation for any change of use. The purpose of my inspection of this facility was to determine whether this facility and/or site could be used for either a Police Headquarters or a site for the NewCAL project. Both projects require a minimum of 2 acres of land area. Additionally, the building itself is too small to contain either program.”
Now, I am not necessarily advocating for this site for NewCAL, but I am suggesting that the manner in which it was crossed off the list is indicative of the cognitive phenomenon I am discussing, in at least two respects. (1) In the NewCAL planning documents, it is stated that the Armory has some significant challenges: “The existing Armory is a historic facility that was designed and constructed to stop artillery and therefore is very challenging to be converted to meet our needs, and it’s too small. On top of this, about a third of the building is underground with no natural light.”
I believe the Administration is so fixated on the potential use of the site for housing that they have ignored how those features are also significant challenges for that use. In addition, the characteristics of this historic structure–and particularly the tall narrow windows–make its conversion into apartments extremely impractical, if not impossible. (2) The commissioner’s fixation on the need for 2 acres of land ignores the possibility of taking land adjacent to this property (currently, low intensity commercial use) and/or sharing parking facilities (which are usually vacant) with the nursing home adjacent to the site. If NewCAL needs to be adjacent to green space, it, too, can be planted around the building.
In short, the Administration is so anchored on its preconceptions–for both NewCAL and the use of the Armory for housing–that it is dismissive of the former possibility and overly wedded to the latter possibility. How to overcome confirmation bias? Here is some wise advice:
Look for ways to challenge what you think you see. Seek out information from a range of sources, and use an approach . . . to consider situations from multiple perspectives. Alternatively, discuss your thoughts with others. Surround yourself with a diverse group of people, and don’t be afraid to listen to dissenting views. You can also seek out people and information that challenge your opinions, or assign someone on your team to play “devil’s advocate” for major decisions.