If you’ve ever walked into a supermarket ‘just for milk’ and left with a chicken, cereal in a brightly coloured box and a multipack of baked beans because that offer was too special to be ignored, then you too appreciate the power of applied psychology in decision-making.
The armamentarium of subtle tricks supermarkets use to encourage desired customer behaviour has been widely documented in the past. But before we jump to conclusions of unwanted purchases and unneeded expense, we should take a second to appreciate the positives in the techniques they use.
How do our brains process an information overload?
The reality is that the modernisation of supermarkets has brought an extraordinary amount of choice to everyday shoppers. If presented in an unordered and illogical way this would overwhelm customers and negatively affect business. To avoid this, supermarkets use cognitive biases to their advantage in a way we should all aspire to.
Cognitive biases are psychological shortcuts, partly ingrained from birth and partly formed from previous experiences, which allow us to make informed assumptions about situations we’ve never been in before.
Historically, a handful of these roughly 180 distinct biases would have usefully helped us figure out when we’re being lied to or misled, or even remember which food was poisonous. The advantageous results of these behaviours have led to them being retained in our genetic make-up. Broadly speaking, cognitive biases are useful in helping us process information and have been so ingrained into our patterns of decision-making that their natures still hold true in modern situations.
For instance, when presented with a range of unknown chocolate brands, we’re far more likely to pick the one we see other people pick before us, despite the fact that they may be in exactly the same situation. Likewise, healthcare decision-makers must employ a range of subconscious cognitive biases to effectively process the large amounts of information presented to them on a regular basis.
How can these insights help us understand our industry?
As a start, applying what we know about cognitive biases can help go at least some of the way to explaining certain decision-making behaviours. Such an example is that of irrational escalation: the observation that individuals or groups – even when faced with increasingly negative outcomes from some decision, action or investment – continue the same behaviour rather than alter course as their actions remain consistent with previous choices. This minimises Cognitive Dissonance; the psychological distress experienced when a person’s actions and beliefs contradict each other.
The infamous 1961 shock experiments by Stanley Milgram showcase a well-known example of irrational escalation. He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the Nuremberg trials – mostly that they were following orders – by conducting an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. Few people will ever experience such an extreme scenario, but the observation offers an answer as to why prescribing can become a habitual process in the face of equally good alternatives.
How can these insights help us influence our industry?
An applied knowledge of cognitive biases can be used to do much more than just explain behaviour. Ensuring messages are remembered until they become immediately relevant to a situation is a core principle of successfully influencing behaviour, and memory, in particular, is a process strongly influenced by cognitive biases. Examples of this include the ‘Bizarreness Effect’ (where bizarre information is recalled more strongly than non-bizarre information) and the ‘Processing Difficulty Effect’ (the relationship by which processing difficulty has been shown to enhance memory).
By framing information to best take advantage of these hardwired thinking patterns, messages can be created and presented in ways that ensure they land with far more impact, and are far more memorable, than messages not designed with these factors in mind.
Change your perception of cognitive biases. Change how you communicate.
Cognitive biases aren’t inherently good or bad, but they are unavoidable. To understand the depths of their potential and use them to your advantage is to empower yourself – whether you choose to use that potential to culture powerful messaging and accelerate your brand’s success or avoid being coaxed into spending a little extra money on the weekly shop is up to you.