Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 27;   July 6, 2016:

Cognitive Biases and Influence: I

by

The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
An actual bandwagon in a circus parade

An actual bandwagon in the 2009 Great Circus Parade, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The idiom, "to jump on the bandwagon," first appeared in 1848 during Zachary Taylor's successful campaign for President of the United States. A popular clown of the era, Dan Rice, invited Taylor to ride on his circus bandwagon during a circus parade. The ploy was so successful that candidates in later campaigns also wanted to "jump on the bandwagon." (See The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Larry E. Sullivan, ed.) Photo by Freekee courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Cognitive biases affect how we acquire, interpret, and process information. When we make decisions, they cause systematic deviations from rationality. Although cognitive biases enable us to address issues more rapidly than we could using strict logic, they can cause us to make epically bad decisions. These properties make cognitive biases useful as tools of influence, especially when the goal of the influencer is not what others might regard as objectively justifiable on rational grounds.

Familiarity with this use of cognitive biases helps limit the incidence of abuses. Here's Part I of a catalog of influencing techniques that exploit cognitive biases.

Outcome Bias
The Outcome Bias is the tendency to evaluate a proposition based not on its general validity, but instead on a known outcome in one or more specific instances. For example, we might not adopt a particular technological solution if we believe that it failed in some previous application, even in the absence of a sound argument that the current proposal would yield analogous results.
To limit the effects of Outcome Bias, require that advocates restrict their arguments to the application at hand, without reference to past outcomes. If people want to use such data, require that they demonstrate applicability on strict logical grounds.
Cascade effects
Some cognitive biases belong to a grouping that can be called cascade effects, in which an idea propagates largely because members of a group observe its adoption by other members of the group. Two of these phenomena are the Availability Cascade and the Bandwagon Effect. Groupthink, the Abilene Paradox, and Peer Pressure can also be understood in terms of cascade effects. Influencers who wish to exploit cascade effects might seek to influence "thought leaders" first, and then use their endorsements to persuade others.
To determine Familiarity with the use of
cognitive biases as tools of
influence helps limit the
incidence of abuses
whether cascade effects are in play, track the sequence of conversions among adopters of the advocated proposition. If the early adopters are thought leaders, but are not the authors of the proposition, it's possible that the authors are employing cascade effects.
Dunning-Kruger Effect
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the tendency to err in assessing either our own competence, or the competence of others. [Kruger 1999] The more expert we are, the greater is our awareness of our own limitations; the less expert we are, the more likely we are to rely on our assessment of others' demeanor as a proxy for competence. For example, if people seem to lack confidence, we tend to question their competence. And the more complete is our grasp of a complex situation, the less confident we tend to appear when we express ourselves about it.
People who consciously exploit this effect might tend to project extreme confidence when they engage in discussions. They know that confidence makes their arguments seem more valid.

We'll continue next time with Part II of this catalog.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Cognitive Biases and Influence: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "The Paradox of Confidence," Point Lookout for January 7, 2009; "How to Reject Expert Opinion: II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012; "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012; "Overconfidence at Work," Point Lookout for April 15, 2015; "Wishful Thinking and Perception: II," Point Lookout for November 4, 2015; "Wishful Significance: II," Point Lookout for December 23, 2015; "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016; and "Risk Acceptance: One Path," Point Lookout for March 3, 2021.

Footnotes

[Kruger 1999]
Justin Kruger and David Dunning. "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77:6 (1999), 121-1134. Available here. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

StonehengeHigh Falutin' Goofy Talk
Business speech and business writing are sometimes little more than high falutin' goofy talk, filled with pretentious, overused images and puff phrases of unknown meaning. Here are some phrases that are so common that we barely notice them.
A 1940s-era trap fishing boatNasty 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.
A New England stone wallHow to Misunderstand Somebody Else
Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand. Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
A lightning storm over New York CityComfort Zone Discomfort
The phrase "comfort zone" is a metaphor that can distort how we think about situations in which we feel comfortable and confident. Here are four examples illustrating how the metaphor distorts our thinking.
Horseshoe Lake in Shaker Heights, OhioWhen You Feel Attacked
Verbal attacks might be upsetting, but in creative conflicts they're usually permissible if related to substantive matters. When verbal attacks are personal, they can be unfair and illegitimate. The ability to recenter yourself quickly is invaluable.

See also Effective Communication at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The lies inside the truthComing May 25: On Reporting Noncompliance
Regulating compliance with process design in organizations requires monitoring process usage. Typically, process monitors depend on reports by process participants. In blame-oriented cultures, fear of retribution can limit what these reports contain. Available here and by RSS on May 25.
Bottom: Aerial view of the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland. Top: Inside the Forth Rail Bridge, from a ScotRail 158 on August 22, 1999.And on June 1: Mental Accounting and Technical Debt
In many organizations, technical debt has resisted efforts to control it. We've made important technical advances, but full control might require applying some results of the behavioral economics community, including a concept they call mental accounting. Available here and by RSS on June 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.