Killing your darlings

William Faulkner once famously said that to create good writing “you must kill your darlings”. Stephen King thought it was such good advice that he repeated it three times in his own guide to writers, saying “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings”.

In writing, this notion of ‘killing your darlings’ is about having the courage to discard parts of your story that you have fallen in love with when they are no longer useful to the story. In other words, the story is the thing rather than the characters, phrases, imagery, or jokes you’ve created along the way.

But the same advice holds just as well for researchers, strategists, or anyone faced with a difficult decision at work. In these cases, the reason we need to be on our guard when dealing with our ‘darling’ ideas is to avoid the confirmation bias trap. Before we explain how that works, try this simple accounting question: A café is running a special. You get a coffee and a muffin for $5. The coffee costs $3 more than the muffin. How much is the muffin? (the answer is at the bottom of this post).

The confirmation bias trap is another one of the cognitive shortcuts that’s hardwired into our brains. It provides, in David McRaney’s beautiful description, “a filter through which you see a reality that matches your expectations”. In other words, it’s the tendency to look for confirmation for our pre-existing ideas while ignoring any evidence that might disprove those ideas. This means that all of us assimilate new information in a way that confirms our existing view of the world (interestingly, the smarter you are, the more likely it may be that you’ll fall for the confirmation bias trap).

Overcoming confirmation bias takes a deliberate effort:

The first step in avoiding the confirmation bias trap is to be aware of how common it is.

The second step is to ask yourself ‘what would it take to prove this idea wrong?’. (Those of you of a more dramatic bent can channel Oliver Cromwell and use his line I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken here).

The third step is to remember that confirmation bias tends to get be amplified in group settings. When you work in groups, have someone in the room explicitly appointed to play the role of Devil’s Advocate to challenge the assumptions used by the others. As John Kenneth Gailbraith warned us “faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof”.

And the answer to café special? For most people the answer seems obvious; the muffin is $2. Except the obvious answer is also wrong. The muffin costs just $1 ($1 for the muffin, $4 for the coffee – which is $4 more than the muffin, and $5 for both). If you said $2, welcome to the confirmation bias trap (you can take a simple online test here:

Now work hard to make sure you don’t fall for it again!