#6 Confirmation Bias: Why black Jeeps are everywhere

Turns out we really love being right. So much so that our brains systematically ignore things that don’t fit with what we already believe to be true. In this episode Mel and Dan look at how marketers can make the most of what customers already believe.

Mel: 00:16 Hi, and welcome to Bad Decisions.

Dan: 00:18 The podcast that helps us understand why we choose what we choose.

Mel: 00:21 Why we think what we think.

Dan: 00:22 And how to exploit this stuff for fun and commercial gain.

Mel: 00:25 Always in an ethical and professional manner.

Dan: 00:27 Yep yep yep.

Mel: 00:28 I'm Dr. Mel Weinberg, I'm a performance psychologist.

Dan: 00:30 And I'm Dan Monheit, co-founder of Hardhat, a creative agency built for the digital age. Let's roll.

Mel: 00:41 Alright so we're gonna flip things around a little bit. We're gonna mix things up this time.

Dan: 00:44 Oh okay.

Mel: 00:44 Yeah, we're starting to feel comfortable.

Dan: 00:44 Good, spicy.

Mel: 00:45 We gonna mix it up.

Dan: 00:46 Spicy.

Mel: 00:47 We are going to start with a game.

Dan: 00:49 A game? Good.

Mel: 00:49 I'm calling it a game but really, we're actually bringing the research part forward and you-

Dan: 00:49 You've lost me.

Mel: 00:55 ... Dan Monheit ...

Dan: 00:56 Can we just do a game?

Mel: 00:58 You are the single participant in this study. Do you consent?

Dan: 01:03 If I'm the only participant, I feel like I'm definitely gonna win.

Mel: 01:06 Okay, alright I like the confidence. So, here's how this game is gonna work and just for everybody listening in, Dan has given his consent. He understands that this study meets all ethical guidelines and his results will be kept confidential, just between you and us.

Here's how the game works. I'm gonna tell you a sequence of numbers, okay. And these numbers are bound together by a rule that I'm thinking of.

Dan: 01:29 Okay.

Mel: 01:29 Your job is to figure out what the rule is. Okay?

Dan: 01:29 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mel: 01:32 And the way that you figure out what the rule is, is that you get to tell me a sequence of numbers, that you think matches my rule.

Dan: 01:40 Easy.

Mel: 01:41 I'm gonna tell you whether you’re right or wrong, and after that you'll be able to have a guess at what the rule is.

Dan: 01:45 Okay.

Mel: 01:46 Got it?

Dan: 01:46 Got it.

Mel: 01:47 Alright, the sequence of numbers is: Two, four, eight.

Dan: 01:53 Two, four, eight, okay cool. Three, six, 12.

Mel: 01:59 Yep, that conforms to my rule.

Dan: 02:01 Okay. Five, 10, 20.

Mel: 02:04 Yep, that follows the rule. Do you wanna have a guess at what the rule is?

Dan: 02:06 Okay yeah I got this. It's pretty easy, so you double the number each time.

Mel: 02:06 Nup.

Dan: 02:10 Okay, 12, 24, 30.

Mel: 02:18 Yep.

Dan: 02:20 What, you sure?

Mel: 02:21 Yeah.

Dan: 02:21 That definitely conforms.

Mel: 02:23 Yeah it's my rule, I know what's going on.

Dan: 02:23 10, 20, 30.

Mel: 02:27 Yep.

Dan: 02:29 One, two, three.

Mel: 02:31 Yes. I think we're getting closer.

Dan: 02:33 Okay so three up numbers, three ascending numbers.

Mel: 02:33 Yes!

Dan: 02:38 Yes!

Mel: 02:38 You got it!

Dan: 02:39 I win!

Mel: 02:40 You did win, you were right.

Dan: 02:41 Can we have some winning music Kops?

Mel: 02:47 Well done.

Dan: 02:47 Yes, thank you.

Mel: 02:48 And I'm sure you're wondering what we were trying to show there.

Dan: 02:52 Other than just trying to demonstrate my raw intellectual horsepower.

Mel: 02:56 Which should be on show for everybody all the time, but, what I'm trying to do is demonstrate the confirmation bias. Which is-

Dan: 03:04 The confirmation bias, okay.

Mel: 03:04 ... Yeah, it's the tendency to look for, and actually pay more attention to information that basically affirms what we already believe to be true.

Dan: 03:13 Okay, so what was that?

Mel: 03:15 So in that situation, you didn't know what the rule was, but you had to think of examples. You had a predetermined rule, you had a working hypothesis of what you thought the rule was, right? You thought that it was just doubling each number.

Dan: 03:15 Doubling, yep yep.

Mel: 03:29 And so your first guess was three, six, twelve.

Dan: 03:33 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mel: 03:33 Then you went to five, 10, 20.

Dan: 03:36 Yeah.

Mel: 03:36 Right, so you were consistently giving me instances that conform to the rule that you thought was true.

Dan: 03:42 Got it.

Mel: 03:44 And then you told me what you thought the rule was, and I said, nah that's not the rule. You then thought I was stupid because you had the rule all figured out, forgetting that actually it's my game.

Dan: 03:52 Right. Okay so let me get this straight, so I was asking questions that I thought were gonna get me the right answer?

Mel: 03:59 You were asking questions to confirm your own view of what you thought was going on, yeah.

Dan: 04:03 Oh, my hypothesis, right. So what should I have done?

Mel: 04:05 Well your job was actually to be confirming my hypothesis, not your own.

Dan: 04:08 Right.

Mel: 04:09 So what you should have done would have been to try different things, to figure out whether other things matched the rule, instead of continuing to go with what you thought was the rule, try different things. So that's when you started saying seven, 14, 20.

Dan: 04:25 Yeah.

Mel: 04:25 Something like that, and I said, yep, that conforms the rule too. And then all of a sudden, you realised, hang on, " Now I've got an exception."

Dan: 04:32 Yeah.

Mel: 04:32 Okay, "So now my rule and my thinking of the rule has to expand a little bit," and that's where you got closer to actually figuring out the solution.

Dan: 04:38 And then I got it right.

Mel: 04:39 Yes.

Dan: 04:40 That's important.

Mel: 04:41 Of course. So the idea with the confirmation bias is basically, it's easier for our brain to confirm existing views than to introduce new ones because when we've already got an existing pre-held view, our brain is wired that way, it's easy, it's the default system for our thinking to go in that direction. Anything that comes in, that is contrary to that, actually introduces what we call a state of cognitive dissonance.

Dan: 04:41 Ooh that sounds fancy.

Mel: 05:07 It is some big research words for you. So cognitive dissonance is the state of discomfort that we feel when there's inconsistency between what we think, what we value, what we believe, how we act.

Dan: 05:20 Is that what normal people would call confusion?

Mel: 05:22 Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is.

Dan: 05:22 It's just so fancy.

Mel: 05:25 I just like to use big words for things. So this is a theory that underlies the confirmation bias. And basically, it's such an uncomfortable feeling for us that we're highly motivated to reduce it.

Dan: 05:35 Okay so if I try and understand what was happening in my brain there, so you tell me to guess a rule, I had an idea of what it was, and then without realising it, I was basically asking things that I figured were gonna get me a yes, 'cause that's easier for my brain than asking things that give me a no and then I have to work out what to do with that.

Mel: 05:53 And not only do you like to be right, but you thought you were gonna be right.

Dan: 05:53 Yes.

Mel: 05:53 You thought you were gonna win before we even started the game.

Dan: 05:56 Yeah well, you gotta have confidence in life.

Mel: 06:00 Confidence is good for you.

Dan: 06:01 Yeah, so this is really interesting 'cause in my non-scientific world, where something like this really stands out is, you know that experience I think we've all had where you go to a restaurant and I guess well ... A lot of my stories start in restaurants but we all go there, and you'll be at a restaurant and somebody at your table for some reason, I don't know, they just got out on the wrong side of bed, but they basically decide this restaurant actually sucks. This service is actually really terrible here. And then all of a sudden, all you do is look out for, and as a result, notice things that confirm the fact that the service actually is terrible. Like can you believe when she just poured me water like she spilled a couple of drops? Or when they put the plate in front of me, it wasn't straight?

Mel: 06:46 It's the worst.

Dan: 06:46 It's the worst, right? And it almost blinds you to anything good that might have happened as part of the rest of the meal because you are so set on confirming the fact that this is actually a shit restaurant and it's just ... That's the experience I've decided that I'm going to have here.

Mel: 07:03 Yeah it makes me think of when celebrities or famous sports people have a certain reputation and often it's a bad reputation and so everything that they do is looked at with that view of, “oh that must be something bad and they're a bad person and they're arrogant or they're cocky” or they're this or they're that and everything that they do is actually flavoured by the perception that we think that they're not a very good or noble person worthy of their fame perhaps. And what we tend to discount and actually ignore is anything good that they might do. So I can think of a number of tennis players for example who carry this reputation and even though-

Dan: 07:39 Bad boys, tennis bad boys-

Mel: 07:39 ... The bad boys of tennis, yeah.

Dan: 07:40 It used to be such a gentleman sport before these ruffian kids got involved right?

Mel: 07:44 But now even though some of these ... A couple of these guys, they're actually like in the top 50, some even in the top 10, none of that really gets paid attention to because everybody's just noticing the tantrums that they throw.

Dan: 07:55 Right, and once we decide that these people are tantrum people, they can only throw a tantrum once every 50 matches, but that's the thing we’re looking for and that just confirmed what we already knew, spoiled brat, not deserving of our hard earned taxpayer money. So I guess outside of restaurants, somewhere else that this plays out is if we think about purchases that we make on a very irregular basis. So things like a new bed, you might buy a new bed once every seven years, right?

And when we decide to buy a new bed, there's a part of us that thinks it's only really worth buying beds when they're on sale, and we should try and get a deal when there's a bed and what do you know, when you start looking for a bed, all of a sudden, you happen to notice that all of the bed shops, whether that's Forty Winks or Snooze, happens to be on sale like this very weekend. What are the chances that Forty Winks is having a 40-hour sale in the exact 40-hour period that I've decided I wanna buy a new bed?

Mel: 08:46 So all of a sudden, you're totally prime to be looking for that sort of information because you are in need of a bed.

Dan: 08:51 Yeah, when in reality, the chances of them being on sale this weekend are 100% because actually, they seem to be running 40-hour sales all the time. It seems that every time 40- hour window finishes, a new one starts. And you tend to not even notice these ads when you're not in the market. But as soon as you decide you are in the market, all of a sudden, your consciousness picks it up, and you're all about it. And I guess another place where we all notice this is when we are looking for new cars, and you decide that you're interested in getting a black Jeep Wrangler, and you've never noticed black Jeep Wranglers before and all of a sudden as soon as you start thinking about buying one, next thing you know, you realise that they're absolutely everywhere.

Mel: 09:29 I feel like that happens to me all the time.

Dan: 09:31 All the time.

Mel: 09:31 Every six years or so when I look for a new car. Alright so there's more to this actually than just feeling a sense of psychological discomfort. The evidence shows us that this heuristic actually has a physiological correlate. So it's been shown that we actually experience genuine pleasure indicated by a rush of dopamine in the brain, when we process information that supports that belief. So it genuinely feels good to think that way. And on the flip side, there's also evidence that the state of discomfort is equivalent to a physical experience of pain. So it actually feels good when we confirm our own beliefs and it actually hurts us when we don't.

Dan: 10:08 Right so if we went back to the start of this episode, where I'm trying to work out what this ridiculous rule is that you've got in your mind, my choices are, ask a question that is probably gonna get me a positive dopamine hit with the answer, or ask a question that's probably be like a kick in the nuts when I get the answer. Clearly I'm gonna be seeking the dopamine hit every time.

Mel: 10:28 You pretty much got addicted to it because you just kept asking for that and you kept wanting [to get that] right, you're just like a little monkey in a cage or a little mouse.  

Dan: 10:35 No, I would've gone with like a person in a hospital where they get to administer their own drugs but sure... Monkey in a cage, whatever works, really ... So where this is, I think really getting maybe a bit out of control, where this is really accelerating in our modern digitally lead world, is, if you think about how we consume news, so where confirmation bias really kicks in is around things that we're often emotional and passionate about, and things like political views, right. And so back in the day when there was a handful of newspapers out there and every person's newspaper basically looks the same, what we tend to do is, we read the newspaper, we tend to focus on the articles that support what we already believe, and we disregard all of the ones that don't and what we tend to do is, buy the newspaper that already is the best fit with what our views are, so we can use most of it as confirming our beliefs and ignore as little as possible.

But now, we don't read too many newspapers, and we tend to get our news through self-curated feeds, like Facebook, what we end up doing is building our own newspapers that are just jammed with things that we already believe are true. And so what happens is, we decide that there's too much animal cruelty going on in the world - that's our hypothesis. We then end up following lots and lots of pages and people that agree with and support that, which then creates a reality for ourselves 'cause every time we go and look at the news, there's more and more stories about animal cruelty and all of a sudden, it just amplifies and keeps ratcheting up this perception that we have about what's going on around us is true.

Mel: 12:03 And maybe that's got something to do with the addictive property of something like Facebook, if we're selecting what we wanna see on there and every time it's giving us a dopamine rush, we're all just monkeys in cages.

Dan: 12:15 All of us. At least I'm not a lonely monkey in a cage.

Mel: 12:16 So, tell me Dan, because I'm just the naive psychologist here. Tell me how our marketing audience can use this to help them?

Dan: 12:22 So I think the first thing for a marketer to realise is that when you realise it's so much easier for people to take on information that is consistent with what they already believe, it makes us realise it would be crazy to try and change people's minds. So if we are a business that people have a perception about, unless that perception is horrific, diabolical and damaging, we shouldn't bother with trying to change people's perception of us. Instead, we should take a thing that they already believe, even if it's just a little thing right, a little positive thing, we should do everything we can to ramp up the proof points about why what they already believe is true. So if they believe it a little bit, we should talk about it a lot.

And if we have an aspiration that is completely at odds with what people already believe of us as a business, we're gonna have a massive challenge ahead of us so be ready for a long haul, a very expensive marketing battle, or be considering to try an alternative strategy. A perfect example of this is when we look at what Toyota did, alright. So Toyota have an undeniable, undisputable reputation as a really practical, efficient, cost effective car. So nobody looks at you when you go buy a Toyota and nobody's like, "God she's a bit reckless with her money, she's just gone and bought a new Corolla." It's a really respectable, sensible car to buy.

Now, Toyota obviously had ambitions to also get a reputation in the luxury market, and to sell luxury cars for a lot more money that you can sell a standard Toyota Camry for. So one option they could have done with those is, they could have said, "Well people believe that we are reliable and efficient and practical, and now what we're gonna do is get them to believe that we're all of those things and also luxurious," but instead what they did was they said, "That's gonna be too hard, we're gonna set up a completely separate brand, and that brand is gonna be known as a premium luxury brand." And that's how Lexus ended up coming onto the market and Lexus plays in its space and Lexus is completely believable as a premium, luxurious, high end offering, and has not tarnished Toyota's reputation as a sensible, practical cost efficient car in any way.

Mel: 14:26 Okay.

Dan: 14:26 Brilliant masterstroke.

Mel: 14:28 So what we take from that example, is that what Toyota were able to do, was to build on their customer sense of familiarity, loyalty with the product, not introduce any sense of dissonance, just keep everything familiar while at the same time, they were able to broaden their customer base by introducing a new product by the name of Lexus that didn't introduce any dissonancy, thus are no discomforts, people are ready to go.

Dan: 14:52 Exactly and I guess in your terminology, there's no cognitive dissonance for Lexus because nobody knows what Lexus is. It's a completely new brand.

Mel: 14:59 Cool I got it.

Dan: 15:00 Nice, you could be a marketing something any time now. I guess that we see this in lots of fashion brands as well, where we have businesses that have got a really good reputation for something, but wanna be able to access another part of the market. So you look at Armani or you look at Donna Karan and these guys have an undeniable reputation as high end luxury couture brands, but they want a big piece of the middle market. So rather than taking their Donna Karan or Georgio Armani brands and putting it out the masses, what they do is they create what's known as a diffusion line. So DKNY or Armani Exchange, and it says, it's a completely kind of separate brand, it's not the couture brand that people know and love. It's a completely separate thing and that lets us play in both of those environments.

Mel: 15:46 Okay so it's important to remember that as human beings, we like what is familiar, we like what is comfortable, we like what is consistent, and we literally oppose things that aren't.

Dan: 15:55 Yeah, I kinda like this, let me just throw in one more example also from the fashion world. So Nike obviously have a wonderful reputation, a lot of different athletic pursuits, they have done an incredible job of actually becoming a legitimate brand in the skateboarding world, which took a long time and a lot of very carefully structured deals, to be known as more than just a running or a basketball brand so they have done a great thing with skateboarding. To do the same thing in the surf industry was gonna be another long expensive haul, so instead of trying to do that, they just bought Hurley, and Hurley is already known as a surf brand. So Hurley gets to be about surfing and continue doing its thing so no cognitive dissonance there, Nike gets to keep playing in the traditional sports that it's already been in, no issues there, and everybody's happy and making money.

Mel: 16:43 And I'm happy because I love that you're saying cognitive dissonance as if it's a term that you've heard your entire life.

Dan: 16:48 Yeah no that's the thing, it is, I've always known about cognitive dissonance.

Mel: 16:50 Okay.

Dan: 16:54 Yeah, ooh, feel that dopamine hit there.

Mel: 16:54 So why don't we recap? What have we learnt? Couple of main points. First is that we really like to hear things that are familiar and consistent.

Dan: 17:02 Absolutely, so from a marketing or a comms perspective, the goal is to accentuate what people already believe. If they already believe that we're a bank for small business, ramp that up. If they already believe that we're a university for sports marketing, ramp that up. It's really really tough to change people's minds. So go with what works and if you really have aspirations to be somewhere out of your category, be ready for a long battle or consider a greenfield approach.

Mel: 17:29 And just to finish off and to bring back the human side to it a little bit as well, I think it's so important that as individuals who are curious about the world and how the world works, that, we recognise that we have a tendency to confirm information or to accept information that we already believe to be true, but, that's not how we learn and that's not how science progresses. I think it's important that we think or we ask ourselves the question, "What am I missing?" And instead of going around seeking to validate your own views, even as pleasurable as that may be from a neuro-scientific perspective, look for instances that don't fit the rule. Look for the exceptions to the rule and expand your horizons.

Dan: 18:08 And look for other places for your dopamine hits right?

Mel: 18:11 Yeah, there are many other ways you can get it.

Dan: 18:13 Good, alright, keep it ethical Mel. Dr. Mel.

Mel: 18:16 And as always, if you have any questions, you can tweet us, my handle is @DrMelW.

Dan: 18:21 Are you on Twitter?

Mel: 18:22 Yes.

Dan: 18:22 Do you like check it?

Mel: 18:22 Yeah.

Dan: 18:24 Yeah, alright. Anywhere else?

Mel: 18:26 Instagram.

Dan: 18:27 Insta, do people send you photos on Insta?

Mel: 18:30 It's your turn. Dan, where would you like people to send you photos to?

Dan: 18:34 You can send me photos, thoughts, comments, perspectives @DanMonheit, no Dr. just @DanMonheit.

Mel: 18:34 No doctor.

Dan: 18:39 No doctor. Get me on Twitter, or Instagram, or LinkedIn, or Facebook, or Google Plus? No Google Plus.

Mel: 18:53 Catch you next time.

Dan: 18:54 See ya.