yes-no-maybe I recently facilitated a workshop on developing professional networks and networking skills.

Surprisingly, the topic that stimulated the most heated debate was that of business cards – to have them or not. A small number of people in the room were great fans, a majority seemed unenthusiastic, to tolerate them as a necessary evil and others saw them as something to be positively avoided. Each group looked to me to justify and affirm their stance and in answer to their pleading I said to each in turn, “Yes, if you say so.”.

“Yes, business cards are a great asset and look really professional (if you say so)”, or “Yes, they are an evil to be tolerated because they are useful (if you say so)” or even “Yes, they are an unnecessary expense and make you look like a manipulative second-hand car salesman (if you say so)”. At this point everyone was looking at me. How could I be agreeing that everyone was right?

The key here of course is “If you say so”. And the truth is that the very divergent, strongly held opinions of each group could no doubt be evidenced by stories and examples that each person totally and utterly believed.

The science behind this is also strongly evidenced, neuroscience, neuroanatomy and cognition science all show the reality that we experience as confirmation bias.

When we think that something is true or right we will notice and remember the evidence that supports our belief and pay little or no attention to evidence that contradicts our beliefs. When we are faced with two accounts or sets of data, we find the one that supports our views to be more credible and the one that might contradict us to be more flawed.

If we believe business cards are valuable and a sign of professionalism we remember the occasion when a significant new contact took a card from us and commented “You’ve got business cards. Now that’s a great idea!” and how they promptly followed up by email to continue to build the relationship. We tend not to remember the times people didn’t follow-up, we see them as neutral rather than negative events.

If we believe that business cards are somehow slightly slimy we remember the time that an unwanted contact kept the conversation going long after we wanted it to end and they finally forced us to accept their card at the same time as we silently vowed we would never get in touch with them. If we do have cards and share them we count the times that people don’t follow-up and blame it on the fact that we were pushy in sharing our details. If people do follow-up after receiving one of our business cards it is almost in spite of the card rather than because of it.

Whatever our experience we then generalise that experience to other people and other times and so we suspect that most other people, particularly the “reasonable people” will hold the same views as us and we continue to accumulate evidence that supports our belief and to ignore or devalue evidence that contradicts our belief.

The take-home message? Our beliefs shape the evidence we accumulate to support the beliefs that we hold. Be very careful what you believe – it really can shape your experience of life!