Understanding Cognitive Bias

“Cognitive biases” are those ways of thinking that aren’t completely rational, but that we do for convenience.  (For example, the “confirmation bias,” where people recall information that supports their existing beliefs.  You may have seen it in focus groups, where an observer seemed to only remember participant statements that agreed with their own opinions!)

There are dozens of different cognitive biases (see Wikipedia’s list here); identifying them can yield important insights to better understand customers and market to them more effectively.  But we don’t have to memorize them all, because Buster Benson created a great cheat sheet here.  (The article actually appeared last year; thank you to my friend and colleague David Spenser for pointing it out.)

Benson categorizes the cognitive biases based on the four problems they help us address:

  1. Dealing with too much information (the confirmation bias is one example of a mechanism that addresses this problem)
  2. Our need to ascribe meaning to the limited information we have (e.g., stereotyping)
  3. The need to make decisions quickly (e.g., the tendency to prefer the simple solution)
  4. We can’t remember everything (e.g., forgetting details, remembering only the high points)

Or as he puts it:

In order to avoid drowning in information overload, our brains need to skim and filter insane amounts of information and quickly, almost effortlessly, decide which few things in that firehose are actually important and call those out.

In order to construct meaning out of the bits and pieces of information that come to our attention, we need to fill in the gaps, and map it all to our existing mental models. In the meantime we also need to make sure that it all stays relatively stable and as accurate as possible.

In order to act fast, our brains need to make split-second decisions that could impact our chances for survival, security, or success, and feel confident that we can make things happen.

And in order to keep doing all of this as efficiently as possible, our brains need to remember the most important and useful bits of new information and inform the other systems so they can adapt and improve over time, but no more than that.

And most important for us as marketers, here’s his summary of the ways in which biases lead to errors in the four areas above:

  1. We don’t see everything. Some of the information we filter out is actually useful and important.
  2. Our search for meaning can conjure illusions. We sometimes imagine details that were filled in by our assumptions, and construct meaning and stories that aren’t really there.
  3. Quick decisions can be seriously flawed. Some of the quick reactions and decisions we jump to are unfair, self-serving, and counter-productive.
  4. Our memory reinforces errors. Some of the stuff we remember for later just makes all of the above systems more biased, and more damaging to our thought processes.

As marketers, we can “mine” the errors above to find insights that will lead the way to developing more effective marketing.  Let’s find out how cognitive biases can lead to opportunities with your business!  Call me at 818-752-7210 or email info at bureauwest.com.

: “Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet,” Better Humans, 9/1/16; “List of Cognitive Biases,” Wikipedia; Bureau West research