Cognitive biases that restrict your professional judgment

Cognitive biases that restrict your professional judgment

All too often we try to convince others and ourselves that a decision or behavior was not our fault. Was it really your colleague’s task to remind you of sending your tax return to your client? And was it really your girlfriend’s task to keep an eye on the time when you were baking a pizza in the oven? It’s a tendency of us humans. In the situation our illogical arguments make perfect sense to us. It is not until later that we can rationalise our behavior and admit our role in the matter. In this article we’re going to discuss cognitive biases marketers should avoid actively.

We like to think of ourselves as rational and logic beings. Already in ancient Greece Aristotle believed that rational thinking is what differentiates us from other animals. Yes, we can logically weigh arguments, but so-called cognitive biases tend to overrule this. They save our brain time and energy. Moreover, they are effective and usually very helpful. But not always. Sometimes they lead us to irrational conclusions.

The brain’s magic box

Cognitive biases marketers have shown as magic tricks of the brain
Cognitive biases – the brain’s magic tricks?

Cognitive biases are effective and powerful tactics of our brains. Without those mental short-cuts, we would not function as efficient and fast as we do. Still, especially when dealing with important decisions, you should put in the extra mental effort for a rational analysis. For example when deciding on your business’s next steps. A marketer’s choice and judgement of implemented strategies should not be biased.

From a professional perspective we tend to focus on the effect of cognitive biases in our customers, colleagues or teams. But it is just as important to look at oneself, and one’s thinking.

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Cognitive biases are comparable to magic tricks and visual illusions. Once you’ve figured out how they work, they can still puzzle you, but you’ll be able to look through them once you notice that it’s the same trick.

Awareness of these subconscious processes helps you to rethink and if necessary change a decision, behavior or feeling.

Let’s unveil a few of the tricks from the brain’s magic box.

These cognitive biases marketers should not use

  1. Confirmation bias;
  2. Selective perception;
  3. Focusing illusion;
  4. Availability heuristic;
  5. Bias blind spot.

Confirmation bias

Who doesn’t like to be right? Perhaps you can’t wait to use your knowledge of the brain’s thinking patterns and biases to nudge your customers. That is great. Or are you already reaping the benefits of Behavior insights? But are you really? Chances are that your brain is trying to convince you of your success.

Our brain tends to look for evidence that our preconceptions are right. It ignores or reinterprets opposing evidence. Therefore, what information we focus on, how we interpret this information and what we remember is not neutral. Our brain wants to back up our arguments and expectations. We call this tendency the confirmation bias.

A possible explanation is that the confirmation bias is supposed to protect our self-esteem. Research shows that exposure to information that oppose one’s beliefs activates the brain areas that are associated with physical pain. This has many benefits. But it can pose difficulties and problems when it comes to important decisions with more substantial consequences. For example, the success of your company is not worth sacrificing for your self-esteem.

Selective perception

To secure our happiness and self-esteem, our brain takes all measures possible. It filters which information we perceive, and it favours those that fit our beliefs. However, this approach, following the principle ‘What I don’t know, can’t hurt me’, holds the risk of backfiring once opposing information can’t be ignored any longer. In those cases, usually we didn’t take any preventive measures earlier because we weren’t aware of the possibility of them.

So how can you avoid the confirmation bias and selective perception in yourself? Now you’re aware of this tendency of yours and you can pause and reconsider your initial judgment. Ask yourself: Is this really the only way to interpret the results or is it what I want it to be? Is there other information that I am overseeing now?

It is impossible to free ourselves entirely from the influence of cognitive biases; after all, they serve us well in most situations. However, understanding our cognitive processes helps to debunk some of these impacts. It helps you to look at the information and your thoughts from a more rational perspective. Read more about this here.

Also, whenever possible try to get opinions and insights from different perspectives. The more information you can gather the better you can objectify your thoughts.

Focussing illusion

Another hint to detect one of the cognitive biases marketers should avoid is by focussing on your focus. Are you hung up on a particular event or task? And does the success of the whole company seem to depend on its outcome?

Your brain rates the importance of the topic you’re engaged in in that moment as higher than it (most likely) is. If you are currently working on optimising your conversion, achieving this might seem like the ultimate way to success. But what about product quality or long-term customer retention for example?

While this bias is beneficial for keeping us concentrated and helps us to reach our goals, one should not lose sight of the big picture. Other things might be equally, if not more, important.

The focusing illusion can especially hit you hard when you let success depend on only one aspect. In case of failure you have no alternatives to fall back on. For example, a person who’s happiness and self-esteem depends on how much money she earns. Unfortunately, this person is currently between jobs. As a consequence, she feels miserable about herself. She forgets about her friends, family, health and other things which could increase her happiness and self-esteem.

Being aware of this little magic trick of the brain can enable you to detect those black-and-white thinking patterns. As with everything, the more pillars something is grounded on, the more stable it is if one fails to meet the expectations.

Another take-away message of the focussing illusion is, that if your audience is cognitively busy with your brand or message, they will rate it as more important. Read more about how to guide attention in this blog post.

Availability heuristic

What we keep our minds busy with also influences what we judge to be true. We tend to rely on things that come faster to our mind. The more recent, more often or in greater detail something was processed and thought about, the easier it is to retrieve it from memory. Therefore, we think it is true.

Do you think more people get killed by sharks or cows? You will probably conclude that sharks kill more people. The opposite is true, but a cow, instead of a shark killing a person is not as present in media and thus also not in your memory. In recent times there have been efforts made to revert the stereotype of sharks by making knowledge about their behavior more available.

Bias blind spot

What me? No, this does not refer to me! While reading about these cognitive biases, you might have thought ‘oh yes, this colleague has a selective perception. And that one is a victim of the focusing illusion. But I am not as easily tricked. I am smart and rational’. You are likely to have fallen into yet another cognitive trap – the bias blind spot. It describes the tendency that people fail to notice the influence of cognitive biases in themselves as compared to in others.

Again, this is yet another bias that is supposed to protect our self-image.

Attribution can explain it. In social psychology, it refers to the inferences we draw about the cause of events and behaviors. In general, people attribute success to internal causes, i.e. giving themselves credit for it. Whereas failures are usually attributed to external factors, like the actions of other people or events. We don’t like to see ourselves as biased, but rather as rational thinking beings. Therefore, we are likely to deny our own biases and look for external factors for the given outcome.

How to rationalise the irrational mind

The following three steps will help you in avoid the mentioned cognitive biases marketers are likely to be affected by when making marketing decisions:

  1. Stop and imaginary move out of your head;
  2. Check your train of thoughts; what am I thinking? Why did I come to this conclusion? Did my brain fool me?
  3. Change decisions or behaviors, and ground them on more rational and logic arguments.

Some practical suggestions at the end: Visualise your arguments and thoughts on a paper. This can provide the necessary distance to check them more rational and less biased. Also, base decisions on the judgement and insights of a variety of people. The more information you can gather the better you can objectify your thoughts.

Clara Vetter

Clara Vetter

Combines the art of storytelling with the science of behavioural psychology & neuroscience

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