The Oxford Comma and Confirmation Bias
At Turnkey, we do our best to turn every decision formerly made by “gut instinct” into a decision made with data, analysis and supporting theory.
But, the past 48 hours at Turnkey have been fraught with grammatical angst and lots of “gut.” There is a war going on about the Oxford comma. As I watch, and participate, in this war, I see something at work that is familiar to me. I see people, like me, who only seek information confirming their currently held beliefs, instead of information with which to make the best decision.
“Beloved,” I asked of my shiny new husband, psychologist Otis Fulton, “Why do I not seek the right answer, but instead seek to support my own currently held belief?”
“Darling,” he replied, “You’re human. Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to search for and favor information that confirms our beliefs while simultaneously ignoring or devaluing information that contradicts our beliefs.”
What that means is that Person A, let’s call him Julian, believes that most typically the Oxford comma is inserted to “rescue weak syntax.” Julian will find examples that support his belief, trolling through his CEO’s writings until he finds this weak syntax, ignoring her typically, brilliantly composed sentences until he stumbles upon these exceedingly rare examples of such poor prose—even stubbornly ignoring her use of them as a literary device. As a result, Julian positions the Oxford comma as a diagnostic tool and confirms his previously held belief, chanting as he marches up and down the halls, “Comma or no, the syntax must go!”
Meanwhile Person B, let’s call her Allison, believes the Oxford comma integral to clear communication. She researches and finds that both the double space after a period and the Oxford comma were dropped to lower print costs and have nothing to do with writing well. Clever woman. Her CEO delights in her in-depth research.
Neither party wasted any time finding data to challenge his or her presumption, and instead sought only information to confirm his or her previously held belief. “Changing your mind is harder than it looks,” said Otis. “The more you believe you know something, the more you filter and ignore all information to the contrary.”
You can extend this thought pattern to nearly any topic, like fundraising. We all bring our previously held notions into everyday decision-making. It’s tricky to absorb new information when one’s mind is, unconsciously, furiously filtering information to support the previously held notion. Most of us don’t want new information—we want validating information.
Even knowing about this unconscious bias doesn’t solve the problem, though it may temper its effect. Personally, I am going to extol the virtues of non-validating information gathering to everyone, including myself and my brain.
Otis spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has degrees in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and The University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.