In his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman explains that our decision-making is often based on what he calls heuristics. Heuristics essentially involve replacing difficult questions with easier questions, which we are more comfortable answering. For example, during political elections we know we should diligently compare the policies of each party and that we should research the background and character of each candidate, but frankly that takes a lot of cognitive effort. So we often fail to perform due diligence and instead adopt an easier heuristic – “do they look competent?”. Psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University showed students photographs of male faces, and asked them to rate the images for attributes such as dominance, likeability and competence. The students were unaware that the men were all candidates for elected office, and Todorov later compared their ratings to the actual election results. In 70% of cases the winner was the candidate whose face had rated highest for competence, with only a brief exposure to their image and without any political context whatsoever. The same study has since been replicated, with similar results, all over the world.
Other heuristic shortcuts we regularly employ include “do I like it?”, “does it feel familiar?”, “what do other people do?” and “what do the experts say?”. The use of heuristics is just one of many cognitive flaws, fallacies and biases we experience, all arising from the fact that our brains haven’t changed significantly since homo-sapiens first emerged, some 200,000 years ago. Our cognitive equipment simply isn’t well-adapted to the complexity of the 21st century, and our biggest flaw is perhaps the immense impact our feelings have on our thoughts and subsequent actions. We have been conditioned to believe that thinking takes place exclusively in the head, yet most cognition is actually processed through our limbic and central nervous systems, which are deeply connected to our senses and whole body. As a consequence our thoughts are powerfully influenced by how we feel, because they are woven from the sensory and emotional data available to us at any moment in time. In the 1960’s Robert Abelson first proposed a distinction between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ cognition, the former characterised by feelings and physiological arousal, the latter by critical analysis and logic. He identified that hot cognition was more likely to arise in emotionally-charged arenas, such as politics, religion and sport, but was also more likely to lead to poor judgement and low quality decision-making.
Of course brand managers have long understood the power of emotion, so spend £ millions on advertising to imbue the Nike swoosh or McDonald’s arches with a special significance in our lives. Yet, by and large, we remain blissfully ignorant of their ability to shape our malleable minds, instead believing that we are always in conscious control of our own decision-making. Brand loyalty is further strengthened by our tendency towards confirmation bias, where we entrench our beliefs more deeply over time by overvaluing data which supports what we already believe, and by rejecting or undervaluing evidence which contradicts our initial impressions. Todorov and Janine Willis also found that not only are we prone to making snap decisions, we then tend to ‘dig in’ behind those perceptions. Their research showed that voters often assess a politician’s trustworthiness within one-tenth of a second of being exposed to their image, and become more confident in their assessment over time, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. Such motivated reasoning is strongly exemplified in Brexit, with many ardent Brexiteers, who originally believed that a good ‘deal’ would be easily negotiable, now employing hindsight bias to assert their long-held preference for ‘no deal’. Studies show that when events unfold in ways we didn’t predict, rather than revising our assessment of our own predictive ability downwards, we are much more likely to adjust the beliefs we claim we held before the event happened.
In this way we create narrative fallacies, whereby we look for patterns in information which might explain past events and if we can’t find any, or don’t like what we do find, we invent something plausible. In doing so we write compelling narratives which explain why something happened, and if the stories we invent are logical and infer causality, they make sense to us. The stories don’t have to be objectively true, just subjectively coherent. Such tales provide us with simple, clear and credible accounts of others’ motivations, their subsequent actions and the consequences of those actions. A coherent narrative eases the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and gives us a reassuring sense of comprehension. In doing so it satisfies our powerful need to feel in control. However, as Daniel Kahneman explains “you build the best possible story from the information available to you and if it’s a good story you believe it. Paradoxically it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our own ignorance”
At no time is the influence of confirmation bias more powerful than when we really want a narrative to be true. The result is invariably wishful thinking, a condition which describes decision-making and the formation of beliefs based on a desired outcome, rather than on reason, evidence or reality. It can even lead us to experience unrealistic optimism, a cognitive bias which causes us to convince ourselves that we are much more likely to experience a positive versus a negative outcome, and to our dogmatic perseverance with discredited beliefs. We may even suffer from the Pygmalion Effect, whereby we subconsciously believe that only positive thoughts will bring about positive outcomes, so seek to shut down any negativity or naysayers in case they ‘jinx’ the unfolding of our desired future. Social media have served to significantly exacerbate the impact of the Pygmalion Effect in the modern world. No longer does Mr Angry from Purley require to write to the local newspaper to attack his perceived opponents; instead the medium at his fingertips enables an instantaneous rebuke, often while in a hot state and without the moderating influence of rational, reasoned thought.