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Volume 16, Issue 27;   July 6, 2016: Cognitive Biases and Influence: I

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

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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

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