Cross-post: How Grantmakers Can Better See What's Coming
This post originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy by Bess Rothenberg, senior director of strategy and learning at the Ford Foundation. Bess reflects on the challenges of confirmation bias as obstacles to progress and change. To read the complete post, please visit The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s page.
On April 22, 2016, one day before the end of the legislative session, the Mexican Congress presented an anticorruption measure that allowed for voluntary declarations of conflicts of interest by public officials.
For civil-society organizations that had long been pushing for mandatory declarations, it was a serious setback. The timing of the bill’s passage — over Easter break — seemed intended to catch activists off-guard. As the news hit, a colleague shook her head and said, “We didn’t see this coming.”
A year and a half earlier, Uganda’s parliament used the same tactic to pass a bill that, among other things, made same-sex relationships subject to the death penalty. The measure had languished for years, in part due to significant international pressure, but in December 2014 its supporters took advantage of the fact that opponents had already left Kampala for the Christmas break and rushed to pass it.
The most direct lesson to draw from this is that when it comes to preventing the passage of harmful laws, holidays are a time for social-justice advocates to be extra vigilant. But more broadly, it’s that those working in social justice need to take into account how change actually happens — not just how we think it ought to happen — when devising strategies.
In other words, we are too easily caught off-guard because our own confirmation bias leads us to give more weight to evidence that supports our work and discount as aberrations that which does not. Understandably, we tend to ground our social-change strategies in deeply held principles and to believe that one good step will lead, logically, to another. But this can cause us to overlook or underestimate obstacles to progress — obstacles that are both familiar and foreseeable. Then we let ourselves off the hook: We avoid interrogating our assumptions of how change happens and give ourselves permission to continue with our original plan of action.
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