We tend to believe our perceptions are a true representation of the world, right?
But it may well be that the world we are perceiving might not be quite the accurate representation we think it is. Our perception may be coloured by our innate biases. It is selective and malleable.
There’s a great deal of research that has demonstrated how our motivations and desires create cognitive biases that influence how we perceive events and information, and how that affects the process of our decision making.
We can pick out infractions by the opposition to the sports team we support far easier than those committed by our team. We can make assumptions about an entire group of people based on the actions of a few. Or dismiss proven science fact in favour hearsay.
Such “motivated reasoning” very often keeps us stuck in our ways (and thinking) as we tend to process information so it conforms to our pre-existing feelings and beliefs. We often dismiss contradictory information quickly so we don’t feel the discomfort it creates.
Political polarisation is an example of how bias can cloud perception where emotions and pre-existing beliefs mean people interpret policy based not so much on its rational benefits and risks but rather on whether or not it is proffered by the political party of their choice.
Organisations that need to communicate with stakeholders are often confronted with such cognitive biases.
Speak up or stay quiet?
For most organisations there are challenges in facing bias with winning hearts and minds (or just retaining them). Innovation and improvement can be held back. Strategies that give stakeholders what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear mean that opportunities to overcome inertia and establish more effective solutions can be missed or hamstrung by a reticence to deliver messages that challenge the status quo.
Can we overcome these innate biases?
As individuals or within organisations we can address our own biases by telling ourselves to slow down, consider longer and ask more questions rather than making assumptions. We can make better, more informed decisions.
But what can organisations do to mitigate the effect of the cognitive bias external audiences?
Here are a few communication strategies to consider:
- Keep it simple.
There’s a tendency for people to favour anecdotal information over statistical data. Making data easy to digest will go a long way in getting buy-in to rational information. A simple infographic will often be more effective that a chart of data.
- Keep it simple!
Avoid the “overkill effect”. People prefer simple explanations over complex arguments that are difficult to process. Presenting someone with three arguments could be more effective than presenting every argument. Favour simple explanations that are easier to process.
- Whoa! Slow down.
Resist showing all your cards at once. If the heading of an article is too challenging, you risk engaging confirmation bias, where the reader has already taken a position before they have read much at all.
- Nudge, nudge.
Make small changes or observations that aren’t seen as a challenge or intervention. If they challenge perceptions or behaviours too strongly you risk engaging the “backfire effect” where individuals strengthen their support of pre-existing beliefs when they face counter information. Think the resilience of the “anti-vaxx” movement in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.
- Provide incentive.
Reward non-biased decisions with positive feedback. Social media channels are ideal for this. Vice-versa, you can consider negative feedback but take care, there are risks if people feel challenged.
- Make people feel involved.
Promote conversation around change. Asking for feedback early on, and asking that people rationalise their reasoning can help address bias and make them care more about making non-biased decisions. This involvement also makes them feel more accountable in decisions that are made.
The application of these strategies need to be well-considered. Each communication challenge is unique and each audience have their own idiosyncrasies.
Go forth and vanquish that bias!
Scott starts his projects with a structured, analytical appraisal that provides the foundation for creative thinking in which the goal is always to connect with an audience. “There needs to be reasons for doing everything we do. So we’ve developed simple processes that get to the crux of a campaign, project or larger strategy that maps out clear building blocks.”