Marketing’s Least Loved: Bring out the bias

In her regular column for Mumbrella, VMLY&R chief strategy officer Alison Tilling explores the help and hindrances of the human mind.

In this column, I’ll be looking at different biases and heuristics, why they evolved, and how they can be used to better understand ourselves and push creativity. Disclaimer: I’m no behavioural scientist, so this is more of a real-world romp through some important concepts that might spur some deeper digging.

What is confirmation bias?

We’ll start at the very beginning, which in 2021, is Wikipedia.

“Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.”

Instagram and Facebook are immediate examples, but people have been doing this through history – algorithms have merely sped the process up. Algorithms power ‘filter bubbles’ and echo chambers that help us avoid the hard work of critical thinking. The human brain tends to priortise information that supports what it already thinks, both in importance and in the memory itself; it ignores information to the contrary, and twists anything even slightly ambiguous to suit its point of view.

Why did confirmation bias evolve? Mainly, it saves us time thinking, presumably so more time could be spent hunting and procreating. Confirmation bias helps us shortcut information overload, not just the processing but the dissecting and reassembling. It makes the information we believe to be the most useful, the most accessible in the memory; and crucially, it helps avoid the cognitive load of changing our point of view.

We can’t train ourselves out of, or just decide to stop, confirmation bias. It’s powerful. But if we’re aware of it and of its prevalence (people can even exhibit confirmation bias in what level of confirmation bias they believe they exhibit compared to others) then we can make use out of it and challenge ourselves on it.

Pride, prejudice and failures of doubt

Doubt is crucial in making us more aware of, and able to counter, confirmation bias. “Doubt is a big part of being a good scientific citizen”, Stuart Ritchie, a psychology scientist at King’s College London, wrote in the New Scientist, “yet failures of doubt have us believing in fictions.”

Miss Bennett’s Case of Confirmation Bias isn’t as snappy a title as Pride and Prejudice, but it is the bias that had the smart and witty Elizabeth Bennett believing in fictions. Bennett is pre-disposed to believe what Mr Wickham tells her about what a total dickhead Mr Darcy is, because it confirms her view: Mr Darcy thought he was too good to dance with her at a ball, she has decided he is proud and haughty, and anyway Mr Wickham is a bit of a looker so what he is saying must be true. Bennett disregards some of the ‘clues’ that show a different side to the story, although – spoiler – the truth comes out in the end.

I was lucky enough to judge the Creative Strategy category at Cannes this year, and saw some strong work that takes on confirmation bias. Starbucks’ What’s Your Name? and Mastercard True Name show different ways to confront confirmation bias. Work like this forces us examine preconceptions, think about what norms we are expecting of others, and understand what it means to live true to yourself.

Surprise, syncopation and the power of expectancy violation

Biases are often seen as weaknesses, but they have been key to the survival of the human race. It’s refusal to acknowledge them that can make us weak. Vera Tobin’s work on surprise endings to narratives reframes biases as levers to use to give the brain pleasure. A surprise ending, that upends our expectations, is more than a shallow gimmick. It actually feeds the brain. Take Agatha Christie and the psychological trick of a story like Roger Ackroyd (no more spoilers I promise) which confronts the reader with the strength of their confirmation bias, while making the brain accept the twist as a deliciously enjoyable part of the story.

An unexpected place where confirmation bias both thrives and is countered, is in music. Your brain likes a familiar rhythm because it likes thinking it knows where the beat should fall, and having that belief confirmed. That gives the satisfaction of expectation being met, but by its nature, is a low intensity connection.

Then there’s syncopation, “a feature of musical rhythm that produces expectancy violations in the listener by emphasising weak temporal locations and de-emphasising strong locations in metric structure”.

Composers use syncopation and its dissonance to actually connect with the listener, and manipulate their cognitive and affective state. It is particularly powerful if it is used as a piece builds up: the surprise moment, rather than just the rug-pull at the end.

So being aware of, and messing with, confirmation bias reveals some new ways to strengthen connections between brands and people. Here are some ways to bring that messing into marketing work:

Find a question buddy, someone whose role is to bring the doubt and explore it.

Actively disprove your hypotheses. Like scientists, start with ways to break your hypothesis down, apply the falsification principle – it’s wishful thinking to call something a hypothesis when it’s actually a strong opinion strongly held.

Try some syncopated thinking. Include unexpected accents or beats in your line of argument or research sources, that will violate expectations just the right amount.

Alison Tilling is the chief strategy officer at VMLY&R. Marketing’s Least Loved is a regular Mumbrella column.


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