Laura Petrolino

14 Cognitive Biases Which Affect Your Communications Plan

By: Laura Petrolino | April 8, 2019 | 

14 Cognitive Biases Which Affect Your Communications Plan

I always think I should have gotten a second major in psychology.

Not only do I find it—and people—fascinating, every PR pro knows when you build a communications plan, you must take into account many elements of psychology.

The two can’t be disconnected in any way.

This is particularly true when it comes to cognitive biases.

What is Cognitive Bias?

Cognitive biases affect the way people process information and make decisions.

In communications, these often represent the obstacles and opportunities we have to work within a consumer’s own psychological tendencies.

Biases help us address four problems:

  • Too much information
  • Not enough meaning
  • Need to act fast
  • What we should remember and discard

Buster Benson, of Slack (why are all those people at Slack so smart?!? Geez, save some brains for the rest of us guys), does the best job on the internet right now breaking down the different biases in his Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet.

It, along with Wikipedia’s List of Cognitive Bias, are two good resources to use when you think about the way these tendencies affect your communications plan.

Cognitive Bias and Your Communications Plan

While it’s important to understand all the different cognitive biases, some will have a greater effect on your communications plan.

Hopefully, you can use this outline, along with Buster’s guide, to align your efforts with the cognitive biases your consumer will most likely face when evaluating your product or service.

Ambiguity Effect: This is when you avoid options where you feel there is missing information about results or expectations. So think about how you present your product or service to a customer. Do you leave gaps in the knowledge base you provide? Is there an easily navigable FAQ? Do you have curse of knowledge (see below) in your content? Do you provide a clear understanding of results and expectations?

Anchoring: This is when you rely too heavily on one piece of information. You “anchor” all of your subsequent decisions on that first piece, and give it more influence than makes sense in context. Normally that anchor is the first piece of information you receive (#becausefirstimpressionsdomatter). Think about your buyer’s journey and the first impression your brand might make at any given time. Think also about preconceived perceptions and how those will affect or create that first anchor. 

Availability Cascade: The tendency to believe information that is repeated often. This is why people believe certain “wives’ tales” or “alternative facts,” like we only use 10 percent of our brains (which can’t be true, since it’s really obvious most people use waaaaaaay less than that), or you’ll catch a cold if you go out with your hair wet. Neither of these things are true, but they are repeated over and over until they become “common knowledge.”

This is important for your communication plan when it comes to messaging, consistency, and strategic repetition.

This also coordinates with the illusory truth effect, which is the tendency to believe something if it is easy to understand or process (versus more complex things, which require critical thinking, because who needs that, eh?)

But Wait…There’s More

Bandwagon Effect

This is basic group think.

The tendency to do things many other people, especially those in your “tribe” do.

If you’ve ever read The Tipping Point (if you haven’t….go do it, now), you understand the theory of bandwagon effect and how it works in application.

Another example is how the stock market works, with prices rising and falling with shifting popularity.

For your communications plan, you want to think about this phenomena when it comes to shared media tactics, such as community building, brand ambassadors, and the use of review sites.

Base Rate Fallacy

This is the practice of ignoring statically relevant information if it conflicts with what you believe to be factual, or your opinion.

We see this in action with the climate change debate and other political issues.

It bleeds into a lot of the other biases and is what makes it so challenging to change someone’s beliefs, even with facts. 

Confirmation Bias

We like to prove ourselves right and we do that through seeking information and people who reinforce our beliefs.

This is made even easier with social media algorithms and the over-abundance of content online.

It’s pretty easy to surround yourself in a sea of information that only reinforces your own beliefs.

Supporter brands can use this to their advantage.

The rest of us need to be very aware of it as we plan out content creation and distribution. 

Whew…So Many Bias, So Little Time

Give yourself an intermission here to let your brain rest. Take a deep breath and check out this pug wrapped in a blanket.

14 Types of Cognitive Bias Which Affect Your Communications Plan

Ok, now we can move on for the rest…..

Continued Influence Effect

People tend to believe previously learned misinformation, even after it’s been corrected.

For your communications plan, this is important for crisis communication, brand monitoring, proper media training for all ambassadors and spokespeople, and the development and reinforcement of really clear messages across the organization.

Curse of Knowledge

I first heard the term “curse of knowledge” when Lindsay Bell wrote about it here.

Since then, I probably talk about it to clients and prospects at least once a week.

You know your product or service like the back of your hand.

You know the lingo around it, the acronyms, the details of how and why.

Things make sense to you out of context, which is foreign to those who aren’t as familiar with your product.

This is the curse of knowledge, and it is one of the biggest struggles in the development of an effective communications plan.

Expectation Bias

You create your own reality and get what you expect.

So if your consumer expects to have a good experience with your brand, they are more likely to do so.

Even if this means they forgive any hiccups along the way.

It’s always important to think about how you can set that expectation before a consumer ever interacts with you.


I wrote quite a bit about this here.

Framing Effect

How you present information matters. Period.

Authority Bias

This is why ambassador and influencer programs are effective.

We are influenced more by those who we see to be in a position of authority, than the same opinions of those we don’t.

Halo Effect

This is a huge one that I’ll talk about in detail next week.

Stay tuned!

Cognitive Bias Affects Decision Making

As you can see there are many, many, many confirmation biases.

Some tie into others and either balances them or emphasize them.

All affect the way we perceive things and make decisions.

While I touched upon each of the biases above, and how they might affect your communications plan, very briefly, the hope is you’ll do additional research and really think about them in terms of your communications plan success. 

Where have you experienced the greatest effect of cognitive biases on your communications plan?

About Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.