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.
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.