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:
- Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
- Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable
to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion
of control" — might provide explanations.
- Why Scope Expands: I
- Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction,
has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
- Why Scope Expands: II
- The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often?
One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
- Neglect of Probability
- Neglect of Probability is a cognitive bias that leads to poor decisions. The risk of poor decisions
is elevated when we must select an option from a set in which some have outstandingly preferable possible
outcomes with low probabilities of occurring.
- Some Perils of Reverse Scheduling
- Especially when time is tight, project sponsors sometimes ask their project managers to produce "reverse
schedules." They want to know what would have to be done by when to complete their projects "on
time." It's a risky process that produces aggressive schedules.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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