Thoughts & Notions

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a well-understood phenomenon that causes all of us (yes, that means all of us) to run information through highly personalized filters. This personal bias is created by the confluence of our genetics and our environment, so much so that our genes can predict our political affiliations. Be it a product or a president, most of us make choices based on what we already believe. Without really considering them, we dismiss the facts that do not support our beliefs and readily accept those facts that do. In his post “Why Politics is Hard,” Rodger Dooley points out how surprisingly easy it was to sway liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans equally, simply by saying a liberal idea was invented by a conservative, and vice-versa. In both cases, people reported loving ideas that didn’t line up with their stated politics when told those ideas had come from their own political party. Our biased acceptance of certain kinds of information allows us to feel good about the decisions we do make, be it to buy (or buy into) a product, a person or a policy. If information doesn't make sense to us (what’s called cognitive dissonance), we reject it and label it as untrue.
"People's convictions arise not from proofs supplied by the brain but prejudices amplified by the heart." —William Bonner
Our news sources are brands every bit as much as Pepsi and Coke. They reflect and pronounce our values. You won’t find many conservatives reading the New York Times or many liberals spending Sundays watching Fox News. We choose news sources that stand for what we "know to be true" and against that which we oppose. Cognitive bias is, of course, easy to see in others (and hard to see in ourselves). All of us make decisions that MAKE SENSE TO US on some level — why else would we make them? After all, we live in a world with LOTS and LOTS of information and choices — if we were to honestly and impartially consider all the data all the time, it’s likely we would never be able to make any decisions at all! (Cognitive bias can even be found in things as esoteric as art and music.) WHAT’S THIS GOT TO DO WITH BRANDING? Quite a bit, it turns out. While weaker brands appeal to base emotions, such as scarcity (it’s running out!), social proof (everyone else is doing it!), and authority (everyone knows that…), stronger brands appeal to both emotion and logic. Here’s why: Emotion builds a connection and logic validates our decision to take action. That's because in many ways a brand is a belief system (and people believe only what they want to believe). Simply put, when there is a conflict between data and desire (fact and emotion), good branding offers a bridge. We bet you can name at least a dozen brands whose entire business is built on offering consumers this bridge. We often say, "People don't buy brands that they like. They buy brands that are like them." Do you have a Mac or PC? Or perhaps you run Linux? Did you have a relative who loved Fords but thought Chevys were junk? Cognitive fluency means people prefer things that are easy to think about. This is why we either disregard the bad press about Apple’s new maps app (if we just bought and love our new iPhone 5), or revel in its flaws (if we’re the proud owner of the latest Android phone). In short, we weigh information, but we all have our thumbs on the scale.   NOTE: While we attempt to respond to every comment, we ARE NOT interested in turning this into a political debate and will politely stay out of the muck and meyer.

21 Responses to “Confirmation Bias”

  1. Simon says:

    This is similar to the Malcolm Gladwell theory of ‘Blink’ judgements.

    Thing is. It does assume some intelligence on the audiences behalf.

    Some kind of savvy brand thinking.

    But how does this pseudo intellectual debate play out in places where this level of sophistication is yet to become commonplace.

    What about developing markets like India, Africa?

    Can this thinking be applied to societies and markets that are unfettered by 10,000 messages a day?

    I ask because Africa is seeing amazing growth. India is booming. These are the new places for brands to capture the hearts and minds of huge numbers of potential consumers.

    I also think it ignores probably the biggest marketing weapon. Novelty.

    Japanese markets are famed for their love of new. People actively seek out the unfamiliar. How does this tally with your theory of ‘you buy what resembles you?’ People don’t continually reinvent themselves. So how do they relate so strongly with the power of the new?

    Great post by the way! All comments here are merely to keep the conversation going!

    • blackcoffee says:

      Simon,

      You make a great point. In order to have bias (preference) you both have a "choice," be aware that their is a choice and be able to recognize the differences between your options.

      I believe this thinking can be applied to societies and markets that are unfettered by 10,000 messages a day.

      The Japanese spent post World War II reinventing their county into an incredibly progressive culture of forward thinking and innovation. They seek out evermore progressive and new (self-fulfilling prophecy) to become a caricature of themselves. I assume that people in emerging economies should have a similar question to ask: "do I embrace the future (the unknown) or the past (the known)?

      What do you think?

      Thanks for sharing you point of view and adding a new dimension to the conversation!

      Cheers!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

    • ken peters says:

      Simon,

      People say they want "new & different", but it's human nature to seek certainty and structure. Successful branding solves this paradox by making familiar things seem new and new things feel familiar. That's how/why we buy what "resembles" ourselves. Perhaps the "new & different" makes most sense when IT is what we would like to resemble.

      • blackcoffee says:

        Ken and Simon,

        I once heard someone say that in the early days of human kind the brain preferred familiar because "FAMILIAR HASN'T EATEN OR KILLED ME" and the human hasn't evolved much over the years. So, while some might like the IDEA of new and different, their fear of the associated risks might outweigh their desire.

        Cheers!

        Mark Gallagher
        Brand Expressionist®

  2. @undefined says:

    That's why politicians rarely try to persuade members of the opposite party.

    Even politicians shown to be crooks get re-elected because their supporters dismiss the evidence as biased.

  3. Tom Asacker says:

    Great post. And you hit the nail on the head comparing a brand to a belief system, since belief in a brand is always related to existing beliefs and desires, e.g. environmentalism, health consciousness, status, frugality, etc.

    In fact, the next time someone asks me to define the word "brand," I'm going to tell them that a brand is "a cognitive bias."

  4. As usual, you've got me thinking.

    I may be oversimplifying this conversation, but it seems that there a strong sense of satisfaction when an outside source 'validates' something you already believe to be true.

    When brands are able to validate preconceived beliefs, they unlock powerful opportunities to earn more trust, and of course, sales.

    • blackcoffee says:

      Justin,

      Interesting. We said "Emotion builds a connection and logic validates our decision." However, perhaps our emotions and beliefs are what's being validated.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Cheers!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

      • Good Morning Mark,

        It seems to me, that when it comes to confirmation bias, emotion (and nurture) do the "heavy lifting" of brand-based decision-making and the logic aspect is clearly less of a factor. Agree or disagree?

        Justin

    • ken peters says:

      Spot on. Everybody wants their opinions to be validated. We seek comfort and validation in brands; from the brands and from other members of the brand tribe.

  5. @undefined says:

    absolutely – emotions decide but they require the reason to back them up – it's a dynamic system
    http://farisyakob.typepad.com/blog/2007/08/lubric

    we weight things -it's bayesian i guess – and things we already believe get higher weights.

    • blackcoffee says:

      We all place greater emphasis on what we value and dismiss that which we do not. However, in debate classes you are often forced to argue a point of view that you don't agree with. It's amazing how taking the opposite position makes us see the issues for what they are rather than what we wish them to be.

      Thanks for the link and your thoughts.

      Cheers!

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  6. ken peters says:

    As always, Apple offers the best illustration of a branding point; one of the best examples I can think of in advertising right now that sort of indirectly pokes fun at cognitive bias are the brilliant Samsung TV spots that show Apple fanboys standing in line for the latest iPhone while Samsung Galaxy users walk by making them jealous with their more impressive phones. I may have my own cognitive bias, because I'm one of those Galaxy owners who wonders why on earth anybody would own an iPhone. :-)

    We all see the same things, but we view them differently through the lens of our own unique experiences. Which is exactly why you can't control how anyone thinks, but you can influence them. Branding is influence.

    Consumers make emotional decisions about what and where they buy, but they justify their choices with logical explanations. Branding speaks to both the head and the heart to influence all four decision modes – fast-logical (competitive), slow-logical (methodical), fast-emotional (spontaneous), and slow-emotional (humanistic) – long before the point of purchase.

    A great post.

  7. blackcoffee says:

    Ken,

    Personally, I'm torn between iPhone 5 and the yet to be released Nokia Lumia 920. But, that's another topic all together.

    We are all predisposed and/or conditioned to prefer on thing over another. It's part of what makes us human. But, your influence/decision making model has me thinking more about a topic Laura and I keep finding ourselves going back to: Does the future predict the past? Or more accurately how does my current opinion about X dictate how I remember and value X. We've talked about writing a post on this subject. If we do we just my have to borrow your model (with attribution of course!).

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Cheers!

    Mark Gallagher
    Brand Expressionist®

  8. blackcoffee says:

    Don Peppers wrote an interesting piece for Fast Company titled "How To Use The Election To Sharpen Your Mind And Business Skills." It relates so well with this post and worth the read.

    http://www.fastcompany.com/3002321/how-use-electi

    Cheers!

    Mark Gallagher
    Brand Expressionist®

  9. blackcoffee says:

    I recently came across two studies that expand on the challenge of overcoming the confirmation bias. The first "Difficult-to-read font reduces political polarity" discusses how "difficult to read fonts" make people more moderate. The second "Disfluency disrupts the confirmation bias" discusses how confirmation bias is reduced when information is presented in a disfluent format. Sorry, but the second one isn't free (US $31.50).

    Difficult-to-read font reduces political polarity: http://phys.org/news/2012-11-difficult-to-read-fo

    Disfluency disrupts the confirmation bias: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/

    Enjoy!

    Laura Savard
    Brand Expressionist®

  10. This article caught my eye and I thought I would just make a brief comment. I am not sure that logic has that much to do with our decision making. Yes we might believe we are justifying a decision, by being 'rational' about it, but I think we are usually unaware of the real underlying triggers of those decisions. Our behaviors are often irrational and not conscious. It's worth delving into behavioural economics to get some fascinating insight into our own irrational, but predictable behaviours. Keep up the blogging

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