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Volume 16, Issue 28;   July 13, 2016: Cognitive Biases and Influence: II

Cognitive Biases and Influence: II

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive biases.
Prof. Jack Brehm, who developed the theory of psychological reactance

Prof. Jack Brehm (1928-2009), who developed the theory of psychological reactance. His book, Theory of Psychological Reactance (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1966), introduced the theory and stands as a classic in the field. In 1975, he joined the psychology faculty of the University of Kansas, from which he retired, publishing his last paper in 2010. In 1998, he received the Distinguished Scientist Award of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. Read a complete summary of his career. Photo courtesy of the Social Psychology Program of the Department of Psychology at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences of the University of Kansas.

The term cognitive bias is, unfortunately, a bit opaque. Cognitive, which means "of or related to intellectual activity such as thinking, reasoning or remembering," is academic-sounding — rare in everyday conversation. Bias evokes bigotry, or things nefarious. In the present usage, bias refers to a systematic deviation. Thus a cognitive bias is a systematic deviation from accurate memory or rational thought.

Because both the influencer and the influenced are potentially affected and unaware that cognitive biases are in play, the result, often, is a poor decision. Here's Part II of our exploration (Part I is "Cognitive Biases and Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2016).

Reactance
Reactance is the urge to do something other than what someone wants us to do. It arises from a need to resist a perceived constraint on our freedom of choice.
To exploit reactance, an influencer might pretend to advocate position Y and reject position X, in order to persuade the target to adopt position X. When there are multiple possible alternatives to X, this is a high-risk strategy, because the target might opt for a different Y instead of the X that the influencer prefers. But when there are only one or two alternatives to X, exploiting reactance can be very effective.
See "Reactance and Micromanagement," Point Lookout for April 11, 2012, for more about Reactance.
The Focusing Illusion
The Focusing Illusion (or Focusing Effect) is the Possibly too simply, a cognitive
bias is a systematic deviation
from accurate memory
or rational thought
tendency to place too much importance on one aspect of an event or situation. For example, many would agree that "if I were rich, I'd be happy," even though careful research thoroughly contradicts this idea.
To use the Focusing Illusion, influencers usually draw attention to just one aspect of a proposition. This strategy might extend to financial models, data analysis, and research. For example, to support a product line extension, influencers might emphasize revenue projections, while paying less-than-adequate attention to support costs and competitive analyses. They might even exclude entirely from the case any reference to alternative opportunities unrelated to the proposed line extension, even though they might be more lucrative and less risky.
See "The Focusing Illusion in Organizations," Point Lookout for January 19, 2011, for more about the Focusing Illusion.
Apophenia
Apophenia is the perception of meaningful patterns unsupported by the actual data. Humans are superb pattern-finding engines, and sometimes we're a little too superb.
To use apophenia, the influencer identifies a series of "support points" — attributes of the situation that are consistent with the advocated proposition. As the number of support points grows, the influencer's target can experience an overwhelming sense that the influencer's conclusion is undeniable, because the pattern is so obvious. Omitted from consideration is any other thesis that could be equally or better supported by these same arguments, or any demonstration that no such alternative thesis exists.
See "Apophenia at Work," Point Lookout for March 14, 2012 for more about apophenia.

Researchers have identified over 200 cognitive biases experimentally. We've seen how influencers can exploit six of them. Only by educating ourselves and enhancing our awareness can we counter the advantages cognitive biases provide to influencers. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: The Risks of Too Many Projects: I  Next Issue

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For more about psychological reactance, see Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control by Sharon S. Brehm and Jack W. Brehm. New York: Academic Press, 1981. Available from Amazon.

For more about apophenia, see "Apophenia at Work," Point Lookout for March 14, 2012, and "Apophenia at Work," Point Lookout for March 14, 2012. More about reactance: "Reactance and Decision-Making," Point Lookout for April 18, 2012, and "Reactance and Micromanagement," Point Lookout for April 11, 2012.

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