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 abuseswhether 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. 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.
Is 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; and "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Dangerous Phrases
- I recently upgraded my email program to a new version that "monitors messages for offensive text."
It hasn't worked out well. But the whole affair got me to think about everyday phrases that do tend
to set people off. Here's a little catalog.
- High 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.
- If Only I Had Known: I
- Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one
more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
- If Only I Had Known: II
- Ever had one of those forehead-slapping moments when someone explained something, or you suddenly realized
something? They usually involve some idea or insight that would have saved you much pain, trouble, and
heartache, if only you had known.
- Conceptual Mondegreens
- When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause
can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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?
Decision-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.