We began last time to explore the power and hazards of anecdotes when used as tools of persuasion, examining how two different cognitive biases, the Availability Heuristic and the Focusing Illusion, could lead to disadvantageous outcomes when anecdotes are involved. We continue now with another more complex example of a hazard of anecdotes.
That hazard arises from what information economists call information cascades. Combining information cascades, cognitive biases, and the properties of anecdotes, we can better understand how muddled thinking and wrong ideas propagate through organizations to become the bases for dominant — but tragically incorrect — ways of thinking about issues.
Information cascades occur when rational individuals disregard the contra-indications of their private information and instead mimic the choices or actions of others. For example, suppose you're seeking a restaurant for lunch upon arriving in an unfamiliar town. You see two restaurants, A and B. A is recommended by your travel guide, but it's fairly empty. B is busy, but it doesn't appear in your travel guide. Choosing to lunch in B, despite the travel guide's recommendation, can be an example of the effects of an information cascade, because your decision is influenced by the choices of those who preceded you, despite the information, or lack of information, in the travel guide. B's popularity might actually be the result of a number of similar decisions, following uninformed random choices by the first few diners, rather than an indication of superior dining. [Banerjee 1992]
In most models of information cascades, the decision makers are assumed to act rationally, but in some variations of the concept, that assumption is relaxed. The relaxation of the rationality assumption enables introduction of cognitive biases into the mix, as a means of explaining otherwise mysterious collective behavior.
One cognitive bias of special interest in connection with information cascades is the Availability Heuristic, which leads us to overestimate the likelihood or importance of some attributes of a situation, when those attributes are easy to observe, easy to imagine, or easy to recall. That's where anecdotes can play an important role.
The power of The power of anecdotes
makes some attributes
of a situation easy to
remember and easy to
transmit to othersanecdotes makes some attributes of a situation easy to remember and easy to transmit to others, beyond their actual importance in the situation. In effect, anecdotes amplify the effects of the Availability Heuristic. And in combination with irrational variations of the information cascade, anecdotes and the Availability Heuristic enable irrational choices — muddled thinking — to propagate through an organization in a self-sustaining way, capable of resisting rational attempts to dissuade the group from its poor collective choices.
When this happens in public discourse, and especially when the media is playing a role in propagating misconceptions, the phenomenon is known as an availability cascade. [Kuran 1999] In the organizational analog described above, anecdotes play the media's role. Have you seen this phenomenon in your organization? First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Nasty Questions: II
- In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information.
Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part
two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Dismissive Gestures: II
- In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've
developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They
hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog
of dismissive gestures.
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their
own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how
this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people.
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VIII
- Narcissistic behavior at work can have roots in attitudes and beliefs. Understanding which attitudes
or beliefs underlie narcissistic behavior can sometimes have predictive value. Among such attitudes
or beliefs are those related to envy.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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