80% Fat-Free or 20% Fat Added? The Dangers of Cognitive Bias

By David Kidd, BPR

One of the major findings in the study of psychology over the last 50 years has been what people had suspected all along: human thinking and judgment often isn’t rational.

And it’s all due to cognitive bias.

Here’s an example. If there were two yoghurt brands on the supermarket shelf and one says “80% fat-free” and the other one says “20% fat added”, which one do you think most people will pick? Yes, the study found the majority chose “80% fat-free” even though both had the same fat content.

Cognitive bias is the tendency to base conclusions and decisions on our predispositions rather than objective evidence.

Cognitive bias is a strong preconceived perception of someone or something, based on information we have, think we have, or lack. These preconceptions are mental shortcuts the human brain produces to expedite the processing of information…..to quickly help it make sense of what it is seeing or hearing.

Unfortunately, biases make it difficult for people to exchange accurate information. A cognitive bias distorts our critical thinking, leading to possibly perpetuating misconceptions or misinformation.

Cognitive bias can be disastrous in strategic planning.

Biases lead us to avoid information that may be unwelcome or doesn’t sit with our preconceptions,  rather than investigating the information that could lead us to a more accurate outcome.

There are many types of cognitive biases and all serve as errors in a person’s subjective way of thinking. The biases originate from that individual’s own perceptions, observations or points of view.

I’ll address just four types here.

Confirmation bias. This type of bias is the tendency to seek out information that supports something you already believe and is a particularly harmful type of cognitive bias……you remember the hits and forget the misses. Confirmation bias can also lead to the “ostrich effect,” where a person buries their head in the sand to avoid information that may disprove their original point. “All my friends love my new morning show……the research must be wrong.”

The Dunning-Kruger Effect. This particular bias refers to how people perceive a concept to be simplistic just because they don’t have a lot of knowledge on the topic…..the less you know about something, the less complicated it may appear. This form of bias limits curiosity…..the desire to know more, to explore the “why”. Unfortunately, this bias can also lead people to think they are smarter than they actually are, because they have reduced a complex idea to a simplistic understanding. “Our share of listening is up…….we are improving”. Perhaps not….it could just be that overall listening is down and your station’s average audience remained steady….it could be demos out of your target audience pumped up the figures…..it could be any one of a number of  anomalies.

Availability bias. This bias refers to the tendency to use the information we can quickly recall when evaluating a topic or idea…..even if this information is not the most accurate. Using this mental shortcut, we deem the information we can most easily recall as valid and ignore alternative solutions or opinions. The bias operates under the principle that if you can think of it, it must be important. “The problem isn’t the music. There was a story on the news today about information overload……I think we’re running too many commercials……too many messages. We need an urgent review of inventory.”

Status Quo bias. The status quo bias refers to the preference to keep things in their current state, while regarding any type of change as a loss. Change can be very scary for many people but this bias results in the difficulty to process or accept change that may be needed for a radio station to improve. Status Quo bias is connected to Loss Aversion bias…. the potential for loss stands out in people’s minds much more prominently than the potential for gains. “We’re not winning 25-39 females with the current format but if we change format we may lose even more”.

As a programmer, how can you deal with cognitive bias?

  • Importantly, admit that as humans we are all impacted by it.
  • Seek out information from a range of sources and consider situations from multiple perspectives. Challenge your own ideas.
  • Ensure you have accurate research upon which to base your decisions.
  • Make no assumptions without research.
  • Avoid having to make decisions under time pressure where the decisions will be difficult to undo. Make the time to think the issues through.
  • Don’t make decisions when you’re in a bad mood (yes, that’s a psychological fact!).
  • If you’re not analytical with statistics by nature, don’t try to analyse data and make decisions based upon it. Find someone who is analytical to do it for you.
  • Don’t make decisions in the evening if you are a “morning person” (and vice versa).
  • Appreciate that uncertainty is a necessary ingredient on the road to rationality. Embrace uncertainty as an opportunity to sharpen your thinking skills and to learn from experience.




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