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:
- Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part I
- While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control,
or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Understanding the risks of these tactics can motivate
you to find another way.
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- The Illusion of Explanatory Depth
- The illusion of explanatory depth is the tendency of humans to believe they understand something better
than they actually do. Discovering the illusion when you're explaining something is worse than embarrassing.
It can be career ending.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
- Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
- And on March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
- Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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