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 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 thoughttendency 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 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 Top 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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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- When Naming Hurts
- One of our great strengths as Humans is our ability to name things. Naming empowers us by helping us
think about and communicate complex ideas. But naming has a dark side, too. We use naming to oversimplify,
to denigrate, to disempower, and even to dehumanize. When we abuse this tool, we hurt our companies,
our colleagues, and ourselves.
- Questioning Questions
- In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution.
Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
- Nasty Questions: I
- Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather,
they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's
political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Columbo Tactics: I
- When the less powerful must deal with the more powerful, or the much more powerful, the less powerful
can gain important advantages by adapting the strategy and tactics of the TV detective Lt. Columbo.
Here's Part I of a collection of his tactics.
- Barriers to Accepting Truth: I
- In workplace debates, a widely used strategy involves informing the group of facts or truths of which
some participants seem to be unaware. Often, this strategy is ineffective for reasons unrelated to the
credibility of the person offering the information. Why does this happen?
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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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.