As I noted last time, although the bullet point format of briefings and presentations is suitable for relatively straightforward argumentation, its inherent shortcomings limit its value for addressing complex issues. Because bullet points are too terse to express complex notions, and because the structure of a series of bullet points is inherently linear, briefers must add observations and detail during the presentation itself. This exposes the briefers to a cognitive bias known as the illusion of transparency. Briefers tend to believe that their audiences are gaining a better understanding of the briefing than they actually are.
But some briefers are very comfortable with this situation. They're more concerned with successfully leading their audiences in adopting the briefer's point of view than they are in providing their audiences with an accurate understanding of reality that can serve as the basis of a sound decision.
One approach to mitigating this risk is persuading decision makers not to demand briefings in bullet-point format, and instead encourage briefers to use whatever format best suits the content. But the bullet point is so well entrenched in business culture that efforts of that kind are unlikely to succeed. So I offer this alternative: a selection of insights about techniques that briefers use to bias decision making in the briefer's favor when the briefing uses bullet point format. Below are three guidelines some briefers employ to bias decision makers.
- Feature aesthetics
- In a recent post (see "The Trap of Beautiful Language," Point Lookout for December 18, 2019), I explored how beautiful language can confer credibility on the message the language carries. This phenomenon is due, in part, to a cognitive bias known as the rhyme-as-reason effect. It isn't much of a leap to suppose that other dimensions of beauty, beyond the mere linguistic, might have a similar effect.
- For example, a beautiful set of slides, Some briefers are more concerned
with successfully influencing their
audiences than they are in
providing them with an
accurate view of realitynarrated by an attractive and polished presenter, might be regarded as more credible than would be a more workaday slide set narrated by a more down-to-earth presenter. [Brenner 2012]
- Indeed, a search of the Web for tips for effective presentation slides yields over 24 million hits. These "tips sites" include such wisdom as the "6x6 rule" for bullet-point-formatted presentations: No slide should have more than six bullet points of no more than six words each. Slides with more verbiage than that are un-aesthetically "busy."
- Provide dramatic nonprobative information
- Dramatic nonprobative information is information that doesn't contribute to a proof of the briefer's case, but which is dramatic in its impact on the audience. Audiences find it persuasive, even though it proves nothing. Examples are emotional or humorous anecdotes; suggestive charts, graphs, and statistical data; statistical correlations; and images.
- Nonprobative information can be so persuasive that it has drawn the attention of researchers. For example, Newman, et al., have produced results that are consistent with the hypothesis that ancillary photographic images can enhance the probability of subjects accepting claims to be true without evidence. [Newman 2012]
- A reasonable conjecture is that the effect of nonprobative information might not be restricted to photographs — videos, well-designed graphics, testimonials, stories, personal accounts, celebrity endorsements, clever word or phrase coinage, and so on, might all have similar effects.
- These results suggest that we make our decisions based on the bulk or emotional impact of the material offered in support of a claim rather than on the evidentiary quality of that material. The advertising industry seems to be willing to invest enormous sums in ways that suggest that such approaches are effective in general populations.
- Exploit cognitive biases
- A cognitive bias is the tendency to make systematic errors of judgment based on thought-related factors rather than evidence. We're all subject to cognitive biases; no one is exempt. Many different cognitive biases are available for exploitation, but let's consider one: the endowment effect.
- The endowment effect is our tendency to demand much more to give up an asset (or privilege) than we would be willing to pay (or sacrifice) to acquire it. [Morewedge 2015]
- In some circumstances, decision makers confront a choice in which they must close down one initiative that's already underway (call it initiative O for "old"), in order to undertake another initiative (call it initiative N for "new"). In these cases, the endowment effect can sometimes lead decision makers to demand a lower level of risk or a higher return from N than they would if they had no need to close down O, and therefore the endowment effect were not acting.
- Briefers who advocate for N can exploit the endowment effect to advantage. They can use aesthetics and nonprobative information to make their projections for N seem more credible and more appealing to a skeptical audience. And by avoiding those techniques in the portion of the briefing concerning another contending briefer's projections for O, they can make O seem less appealing. In this way they can increase the relative attractiveness of N.
These are just three examples of techniques briefers can use to gain an unfair advantage in persuading decision makers to adopt the position the briefers advocate. If I haven't convinced you that this is a real risk, let me know and I'll send you some bullet points. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- 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.
- Seven More Planning Pitfalls: III
- Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive
results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic
bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule.
- Illusory Management: I
- Many believe that managers control organizational performance, but a puzzle emerges when we consider
the phenomena managers clearly cannot control. Why do we believe in Management control when the phenomena
Management cannot control are so many and powerful?
- Illusory Management: II
- Many believe that managers control organizational performance more precisely than they actually do.
This illusion might arise, in part, from a mechanism that causes leaders and the people they lead to
tend to misattribute organizational success.
- Unrecognized Bullying: III
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized because of cognitive biases that can cause targets, perpetrators,
bystanders, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. The Halo Effect and the Horn Effect
are two of these biases.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
- Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
- And on March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
- Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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