Have you ever wondered why first impressions matter so much? Why is it that if you start out on a negative note with someone, it becomes very difficult to change your impression subsequently? It happens because once you form an impression, your brain starts playing some very interesting tricks on you. It starts looking for and collecting evidence that supports the initial impression. When it encounters contradictory evidence, it ignores it, discounts it, or distorts it to conform to your original beliefs. Psychologists call this selective use of information, the confirmation bias.
We exhibit this bias in our everyday consumption behaviour. We let a product’s packaging influence our quality assessment of the goods inside. We stick with our favourite brands because we refuse to look at evidence that another brand may be superior. Marketers are aware of this bias and engage in practices to leverage its effect to their advantage. For example, let’s say you believe that your favourite retail outlet charges low prices compared to other neighbourhood retailers. Once you have this belief, you will pay special attention to instances where your retailer’s prices are actually lower than market prices. In order to keep your belief, your favourite retailer does not have to charge you low prices consistently. Instead, lower prices on just a few items will be enough to fool you. Why? Because you will be looking for confirmatory, instead of contradictory, evidence. And once you find it, you will stop looking!
Do you think that somehow your brain works differently and that you are unlikely to fall victim to this bias? Well, test yourself through this classic puzzle used in a study. Say there are four cards on a table. You are told that each card has an alphabet written on one side and a number on the other. You can read A, D, four and seven on the four cards. Your task is to test the truth of the following statement by turning over the minimum number of cards: All cards with a vowel on one side have an even number on the other side. Which card or cards would you turn over to test if this statement is true? Before you read further, take a moment to decide which card would help test the veracity of the statement.
If you are like most people, you’d choose to flip cards with A and four (or just A). You will do so to confirm the statement; if A has an even number or four has a vowel on the other side, then the statement stands verified. Unfortunately, turning over only those two cards doesn’t really test the statement completely. The “seven” card could have a vowel on the other side, thus proving the statement wrong! The correct strategy is to flip the A and the “seven” card. If A has an odd number or seven has a vowel on the other side, the statement stands not confirmed. Most of us don’t opt for this strategy because of our natural bias to look for confirming evidence. This is the key reason why fortune-tellers continue to be in business. They don’t have to know the future as long as they have access to enough believers who will focus on and remember the predictions that happen to come true by mere chance and forget (or ignore) the other predictions that prove to be false.
Has it ever happened that you buy a certain brand and suddenly start noticing that there are a lot of other people using the same brand? It’s as if a bunch of people were waiting for you to make the move and then decided to buy the product you chose. This again is a manifestation of the confirmation bias. Once you buy a brand, you are motivated to confirm that you made the right choice by looking for evidence that many others thought the brand was great. You don’t even have to buy anything to experience it. Let’s say you believe that Nike is more popular than Adidas. Given this prior belief, you are more likely to look for people wearing Nike and ignore those wearing Adidas. You will try to confirm your belief by looking for people wearing Nike, instead of trying to not confirm your belief by observing people wearing Adidas. In a sense, we are all scientists trying to test our beliefs and hypotheses all the time; it just so happens that we are very biased scientists.
So how do you become better “scientists” in your day-to-day life? First, actively look for counter evidence and pay attention to it when you find it. Second, try to generate and confirm the alternative hypothesis. If you believe that Nike is more popular than Adidas, try gathering evidence that will show the opposite. This will force you to look at the other side. Finally, to the extent possible, avoid forming opinions early in the assessment process. Take in the full evidence, evaluate it and contrast it, and then come to a conclusion. And even after you have formed an opinion, keep in mind that facts and circumstances constantly change, and that may require re-examination of that opinion. In other words, be open to seeing before believing!
Praveen Aggarwal is an associate professor of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Rajiv Vaidyanathan is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth
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