Beating back bias: Or, why Element insists on science over instinct.

Have you noticed? Bias is suddenly everywhere. It’s in our news, it’s deeply embedded in the websites we look at, and it’s entrenched in the reporters and pundits and networks we prefer. As it turns out, bias is also a force to be reckoned with in brand building. Why? Because nearly all of us suffer from a blindness to our own biases. So whether you’re a client, a consumer, or part of a brand-building agency, you have a brain that wants to believe certain things are true, when just the opposite is often the case. When companies are making large investments of capital to build a brand, well, let’s say we’ve found that’s a bad time to hamstring the process due to poor perceptions or easily corrected mistakes of meaning.

At Element, we try to raise the awareness of our biases and instruct our clients on theirs (in a nice, gentle way!) so that we can emerge with a solid foundation of knowledge from which to build a brand. We eschew decisions made purely by instinct or gut for a simple reason: That’s where most of our biases live. By pivoting to the purity of data and science, and letting the bulk of empirical weight drive important considerations and conclusions, we can build a better brand––one with a greater likelihood of stimulating the behaviors our clients want.

Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of the seminal works Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence 2.0, has spent his academic life learning and understanding these predilections or tricks of perception the brain plays on us. Here are some common examples he cites:

Affect Heuristic – This is the tendency human beings have to make decisions emotionally. Bradberry provides the example of research conducted at Shukutoku University in Japan. There, study respondents were asked to consider a tragedy: a disease that might wipe out a large part of the population. In a set of two choices, participants believed a disease that killed 1,286 people to be much worse than one that claimed 24.14% of the population. Why? Because they could more easily conjure the image of 1,286 people dying in a horrible way and had an emotional reaction to it. When asked to consider the percentage, though it represented more than twice number of deaths, the participants simply didn’t conjure a proportional emotional reaction.

Confirmation Bias – This is the phenomenon that occurs when we enter a topic with a preconceived notion, then simply seek out information that confirms that notion. If we love a particular football team, we may not get the best data on their likelihood of winning from a fan page.

Fundamental Attribution Error – One of Element’s personal favorites because of its prevalence, this bias occurs when we attribute something “in the now” or situationally based to a person’s fixed personality. If the person in front of you in line at Starbucks assists the cashier with the correct change, you might wrongly assume the person is gifted at math or an accountant, when in fact he or she may have merely struck gold in the moment.

Bias Blind Spot – This is also one we have to watch out for, as do many people. This happens when you believe you’ve studied up on biases and know your own very well, and therefore presume you’re no longer susceptible to bias. You see other people falling prey to their biases, but you no longer see them in yourself. This one’s very dangerous for researchers and brand builders, as well as for clients who presume to know their customers merely because they’ve had them a long time. Your own perspective is valuable––no doubt. But it’s sometimes an incomplete one.

So, a word to the wise: If you want to study something effectively, first understand how your brain interprets data, and prepare to thwart your own bias. Get opinions from other people who don’t share your bias. Collaborate. Then, whether you’re building a brand, or simply engaging in a conversation at the water cooler, you’ll be far more effective and uncluttered by misguided conclusions.

By Jack Becker

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