Last year, we spent a bit of time exploring how our biases affect our communications planning (I recorded a podcast episode and wrote a blog post about both). 

During that exploration, we talked about how we’re more than communicators: we’re therapists, psychologists, mind-readers, babysitters (sometimes), and confidantes.

There are many titles in what we do, and we have to take all of that into account when we communicate, both internally and externally.

And never before have the stakes been higher. After the last couple of years we’ve all had, we’ve also had to take into account how we communicate about politics, social justice, climate change, and community…all without alienating half of our customer base.

It’s something to consider as we traverse the waters of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion memo recommending Roe v. Wade be overturned. Do we take a stand? How do we communicate that to our internal teams? What about external audiences?

That’s where our cognitive biases come in.

Let’s start at the beginning.

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 has a nice little Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet.

Along with Wikipedia’s List of Cognitive Biases, these are helpful resources when you think about how 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 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 the 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. 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 or believe Trump was not Q as originally thought; it’s now Biden. When I got married, my husband told me you can’t eat peanut butter out of the jar because it will make you sick. I was like, “Come again?” Apparently, that’s a wive’s tale his mom told him and his sisters so they wouldn’t make the peanut butter communal. Of course, it’s not true, and he and his sisters don’t really believe it, but it was repeated so many times during their childhood that they wonder if I’m the crazy one. 

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 tends to believe something if it is easy to understand or process (versus more complex things, which require critical thinking).

But Wait…There’s More

  • Bandwagon Effect: This is basic group thinking or 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…. do it, now), you understand the bandwagon effect theory 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 phenomenon regarding 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 many other biases and 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 with 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 obvious messages across the organization.
  • Curse of Knowledge: I first heard the term “curse of knowledge” when Lindsay Bell wrote about it.  Since then, I talk about it with 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 developing 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.
  • Pareidolia: Laura Petrolino wrote quite a bit about this a couple of years ago 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.

Cognitive Bias Affects Decision Making

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

Some tie into others and either balance 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?

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich