Cognitive Bias and Brand

Why, despite our best intentions and efforts, can we all make bad decisions? Social scientists point to the phenomenon of “cognitive bias”  — a scholarly and polite way of saying that we should not so quickly and easily believe everything we initially perceive or think.

The more complex the set of choices and decisions, the more prone we become to any one of the 100 or so variations of cognitive bias.

In the higher education marketing realm, few things match a full brand discovery for complexity. We read and interpret reams of enrollment and financial data. We interview dozens of college representatives — students, faculty, staff, alumni and leaders. We pour over annual reports, strategic plans, course descriptions and faculty vitae. We reference third-party sources for reviews, comments, and insights. We tour campus. We calculate. We listen. We ponder.

Opportunities for cognitive bias to creep into a brand discovery rival the chances of an insect or two crashing your next outdoor picnic. Schedule it and they will come.

I will name a few of these cognitive biases over my next few posts, and talk about my experiences with trying to stay vigilant and aware of their influence.

Cheerleader effect. The tendency for people to appear more appealing (happier, self-directed, ambitious, committed) in a group than in isolation. One of the reasons we prefer as many one-on-one interviews as possible…because any focus group of students, staff or faculty runs the risk of casting an overall impression that overrides the more nuanced view of individuals.

Confirmation bias. The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. This is a constant in brand discovery — the temptation to interpret what we find in discovery based on what we already know. I find that it helps to keep a beginner’s mind for as long as possible — to resist “knowing” anything for as long as possible.

Focusing effect. The tendency to place too much importance on one aspect of an event. Given that our brand discovery team can only spend a limited time on a college campus, it’s easy to mistake our Tuesday late afternoon cafeteria experience for the whole of student culture rather than a narrow slice.

Sunk cost fallacy. The phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on cumulative prior investment, despite evidence suggesting that the decision was less than perfect. We sometimes invest days and weeks in one approach to a brand position, only to become all too clear about its limitations. Though rare, we have to remain willing to wind our way back and find a better route. Close is not home.

More on cognitive bias in future posts.