Today, we’re going to talk about the elephant in every genealogist’s research room. It’s one we’ve all spent some time with, whether we realise it or not. And what’s more, this particular elephant tends to divert our research when it shouldn’t. At its worst, it can stampede us right off course.
Have you guessed the elephant’s name yet…?
Yes, bias. Bias comes in many forms, but I’m going to focus on cognitive bias here. This occurs when our internal judgments impede rational thought and affect our decision making when we’re interpreting information. So when does this happen and how can we combat it?
Our Research Process
Most of the time, there is more than one route through a genealogy problem. Each researcher will tackle things in their own way, with a variety of creative approaches often possible.
Whatever the route, the fundamentals of the process involve us examining multiple sources. For each of these, we identify what information that document has given us, and assess how much we can trust it.
So every time you look at a document, you’re making a value judgment about its usefulness to determine how it affects the emerging story. These judgments are key to pushing our research forward: they’re a natural part of what we do. Usually, there is no “perfect” way to navigate our decisions either…and sometimes our forebears find ways to surprise us (NOTE: For more about proof, I highly recommend Phil Isherwood’s article).
But what happens when we make errors of judgment? Perhaps we trust one source more than we should; perhaps we unfairly reject another because we think it doesn’t fit the picture we have in mind. This is where cognitive bias comes into play.
Cognitive bias takes many forms, but I’m going to focus on two sorts here: confirmation bias, and anchoring. Let’s take a look now at what these are and what they might mean for our genealogy research.
Confirmation bias arises when our firm beliefs about a person or situation cause us to dismiss evidence which conflicts with those beliefs. This prevents us from making an objective assessment of the evidence. Instead, confirmation bias causes us to seek out information that reinforces our existing beliefs.
Take a look at the baptism record above and imagine that you really wanted to discover high-born ancestry, despite having any evidence to suggest this. If you found Francis Burdett Nuttall in your family tree, you might jump at the prospect of him being related to – or even descended from – the line of Burdett baronets. Looking at this through the lens of confirmation bias, you might conclude that the similarity of name was “proof” of a blood connection, rather than exploring other possibilities – such as the parents naming their son after a public figure they had admired.
Confirmation bias can be a particularly potent distraction in genealogy research. To research the lives of our ancestors, we step from the known into the unknown: throughout this process, we have to generate our own theories which govern what to look for next. We all need ideas to follow up, but we need to be careful that we’re motivated by the evidence in front of us, rather than wanting a particular outcome.
Anchoring bias occurs when you give greater weighting to the first pieces of information gleaned in your research, whether or not they are of good quality. If we happen upon a misleading piece of information early on, it could easily steer us off course.
For example, think about research using newspapers, where the details included may not always be accurate. If a news article is your first source of a particular “fact”, it has considerable power to lead you astray. Take, for instance, the following news article and imagine that we came to this early in our research, knowing John Walton’s name but little else:
How might we use this article in our research? We cannot guarantee that it provides a fair representation of the facts.
Anchoring might occur if you assumed from this that John was precisely 13 at the time of his trial and refused to consider any alternative ages when running your searches. Anchoring bias can make us blind to other possibilities, perhaps cause us to run too-narrow searches or to discount genuine matches that don’t fit with our early evidence.
How can I battle these biases in my own genealogy research?
It’s not always a straightforward battle, but the following suggestions may help you break out of the bias bubble:
1. Slow down and acknowledge the existence of cognitive bias
This is the absolute first stop on our journey. Each of us, no matter what our level of experience, can fall victim to cognitive bias. By acknowledging this, we are better placed to combat it. Our biases are rarely conscious ones and can be annoyingly difficult to spot.
If we’re to call out our biases, then slowing down our pace and questioning our own decisions can be of huge benefit. When we’re hurtling through our research, hot on the trail of a new lead (we’ve all been there), it’s easy to fall into quick decision making without weighing all the evidence. Snap decisions often rely more on “gut feeling” and might allow our biases to sneak in unannounced.
Once we’ve realised that bias is a universal experience, there are some routes to spotting it, which we’ll delve into now.
2. Talk to others about your work.
Talking about your process, not just your findings, is one of the most important aspects of beating cognitive bias. Bias thrives on our isolation. Genealogy research frequently occurs within our own little bubble and it’s typically the end findings that we discuss with our nearest and dearest, not the methods or reasoning we used to get there.
Researching alone – or even in a pair or small group where you may all get stuck in a thinking rut – can entrench our habits and attitudes and cause us to miss things. Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes is what’s needed. Think of it as genealogical peer review.
So, whom should you speak to? Your confidant could include a trusted friend or relative who has experience in genealogy. Alternatively, you could join your local family history society to meet others with whom you can discuss your research. If you’re UK-based, you might find the Federation of Family History’s society search facility useful.
You might also choose to connect with other researchers via online forums and social media. Draw on these valuable community networks and be prepared to reciprocate too: if someone acts as a sounding board for your research, how about you return the favour for them when they need it?
3. Write up your research.
When we write up, we draw the separate strands of our research together into a common narrative thread. This is a critical process and requires you to scrutinise your own ideas and methods, and work closely with your notes and sources. This is known as self-reflective practice.
Writing up is a great opportunity to spot any errors you might have made. Think of it as a friendly critique of your younger self!
Sometimes a project might need time for it to grow to a point where writing up is a viable prospect. Where possible, I’d advise writing up as often as is appropriate, so you can spot any mistakes or missed avenues before you build on your research much further: backtracking then will feel even more painful.
4. Embrace evidence.
An empirical (evidence-based) approach can help you to construct a logical argument for why you think the record you’ve found is the right one for the individual you’re researching. Always ask: what’s the evidence for or against this finding? Does it fit with what I already know, or do I need to rethink some aspects of my existing narrative?
When drawing together multiple sources from several research sessions to make your case, a well-organised system of recording in a research log can assist you in referring to all the relevant documents when you’re drawing your conclusions.
If you’re new to research logs, then Cyndi’s List has some great resources for you to explore on the subject. Natalie Pithers of Genealogy Stories has also written a great overview of logs and why you need them on her blog.
5. Beware anchoring from oral histories
Oral histories (evidence drawn from conversations rather than written documents) are typically a first port of call in our genealogical journey. How many of us started our family history journey by talking to our older relatives? Conversations can be a rich source of information about our forebears, but are unlikely to be 100% accurate. The nature of oral histories as a frequent starting point makes them a particular source of anchoring bias.
For instance, I’ve encountered cases where someone was adamant they knew their mother-in-law’s maiden name, but in fact got it completely wrong; cases where a family story about a particular religious affiliation turned out to have no basis in fact; and stories of connections to famous people which weren’t true at all. So as with all our research, BE CRITICAL!
Once you’ve recorded the oral history you’ve taken from a relative, try asking yourself: “What does this oral history suggest I should look at?” followed by, “If some of these ideas are inaccurate, what are my alternatives?” This way, you’ll have a Plan B in mind from the start and might be less likely to be derailed by misinformation.
Be especially careful not to assume all information you’re told is accurate. Use it as a guideline to suggest research directions, but don’t assume that it provides the complete picture.
6. Celebrate context
Ask “what are my blind spots?” and approach genealogy as a perpetual learner. Delve into some background reading about the era and place that you’re researching; understand the provenance of the record sets you work with. Appreciating context in this way will really improve your judgments when navigating the records.
7. Practise, practise, practise
The final step in battling our biases is to continue on our research journey with these bias-battling tools in mind. There is no quick, one-stop fix for cognitive bias, but over time you can train yourself to spot when it’s happening.
It’s a reassuring thought that, whatever level of experience we bring to our genealogy research today, we’re all learning as we go. The more secure you become in your genealogical technique, the better equipped you’ll be to address bias in your own practice – as well as helping friends and acquaintances with theirs!
Try some of the suggestions above and you’ll find that bias-battling gets easier with time. Critiquing our own work can help our research to flourish, gifting us family history stories that we’ll enjoy sharing with our families and descendants for many years to come.
What’s your advice?
Do you have any favourite bias-battling approaches or advice you’d like to offer to your fellow genealogists? Or perhaps you’d like to share your own experience of being led astray by bias? Post your tips and stories in the comments below and perhaps you’ll help others avoid the pitfalls of the genealogical elephant in the room…!
If you enjoyed reading about cognitive bias and what it might mean for your genealogy research, then I’d highly recommend the following articles and resources for further reading.
BOOK: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This bestselling book comes from one of the original academics to identify and characterise cognitive bias – it’s a great introduction to the major concepts.
BOOK: History in Practice by Ludmilla Jordanova. Chapter 5, on “The Status of Historical Knowledge”, provides a great overview of the reasoning processes that underpin historical research.
ARTICLE: Confirmation Bias and the Power of Disconfirming Evidence by the Farnam Street blog. Their Mental Models page, which provides more information about cognitive biases and how to challenge them, is also worth a look.
ARTICLE: The Cognitive Biases Tricking Your Brain. Ben Yagoda’s article for The Atlantic looks at some of the history of our awareness of cognitive bias and studies on how we might unseat it.