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Cognitive Bias: Why It’s What Customers Hear That Matters

The subject of leadership dominated the two-day ICCO Summit of PR and communications leaders last week.  Fascinating to observe was the growing consensus that clients need to be supported in understanding not just how their messages are delivered, but more importantly how they’re received.

Not What You Say, It's What They Hear-001I was particularly impressed with Diana El-Azar, senior director responsible for media, entertainment and information industries at the World Economic Forum.

Diana’s oversees partnerships with global media companies. She’s personally involved in setting the media and communications industry agenda, and in a fantastic place to observe the changes taking place right now.

What audiences hear is becoming absolutely critical to the communication process, as it’s increasingly difficult to transmit messages in today’s hyper-connected world.

This phenomenon isn’t as new as you may think.

Back in the ‘60s, psychologists discovered a condition they called ‘confirmation bias’. It describes the tendency of people to favour information that confirms their own attitudes, values, beliefs, perceptions and behaviours.

Customers, clients and supporters display this bias when they gather information selectively, or interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.

Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain a number of states of mind:

  • attitude polarization – when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties see the same evidence;
  • the irrational primacy effect – a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series; and
  • illusory correlation – when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations.

A series of experiments in the ‘60s suggested that people are biased toward confirming their existing beliefs. Later research re-interpreted these results as a tendency to test ideas in a one-sided way, focusing on one possibility and ignoring alternatives. In certain situations, this tendency can bias people’s conclusions about your products, services or message.

Explanations for these observed biases include wishful thinking and limited human capacity to process information.

Another explanation for confirmation bias is that people tend to weigh up the costs of being wrong, rather than investigate in a neutral, scientific way.

From the perspective of a psychologist, ‘confirmation biases’ contribute to over-confidence in personal beliefs. They also can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. This is known as the ‘backfire effect’!

American psychiatrist Dr Charles Lord looked at how people changed their minds when given more information. He observed a ‘back-fire effect’ in which individuals challenged with evidence contradictory to their beliefs rejected it and hardened their views instead.

FacebookFast forward to 2004 when Facebook came on the scene, increasing the speed of information exchange.  All of a sudden everyone had a voice. However, as good marketing and PR folk all quickly discovered, not everyone had the ability to harness this for PR and social marketing impact.

The imbalance between those who laboured to get their messages ‘pitch perfect’, and those who had a voice and weren’t afraid to use it radically changed the nature of customer communications.

In fact, it made things much more stressful for marketers and PR practitioners.

So how do organisations and individuals deal with the complexity, velocity and volatility of online and offline media today?

The message coming out loud and clear from the ICCO Summit was for the necessity for all of us to embrace rather than react against change.

Howard Kosky, who runs a multi-million GBP broadcast communication business in London, spoke about the rise of so-called ‘citizen journalism’.

In a sense that’s precisely what some social media sites such as Twitter have come to represent.

But instead of decrying this or thinking of it as sub-standard, marketers and PR practitioners must try and embrace this growing aspect of social interaction.

As Howard confessed, ‘citizen journalism’ is new, immediate and rapidly becoming the most trusted information source on the planet.

Remember: it’s not what you say but what they hear that counts.

Ardi Kolah - The Art of Influencing and SellingArdi Kolah is author of The Art of Influencing and Selling published by Kogan Page. Order your copy today and get a 30% discount by adding the code VOCUS30 on check-out.

Image: cizake, leomtxwebmaster (Creative Commons)


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