Category Archives: Learning

Cognitive bias – understanding how we fool ourselves

A client of mine told me: ‘My customers are going to love the new service I’m launching.’

‘How can you be so sure’ I asked.

‘How could they not like it?’ was his confident reply.

Ok, his knowledge of his customers may well be extensive, but does he know what they really want? Has he asked them? His ‘How could they not like it?’ gave away the fact that his own enthusiasm for the service was playing a big part in convincing him that it would be a success.

It’s a common mistake when doing sales projections. We are so determined to succeed that we become prone to false optimism, unrealistic targets suddenly seem achievable. This skewed thinking is an example of what psychologists call cognitive bias.

Unfortunately, cognitive bias takes many forms. Even if my client had done some research, he might well have succumbed to confirmation bias – the tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms what he already thinks. Added to this, he might not realise the power and influence of his own enthusiasm for the new service. Psychologists refer here to the empathy gap – our inability to fully understand the role of our emotions in decision making. Research also suggests that even if he had received some negative feedback from customers, he might well have succumbed to conservatism bias –  the tendency to revise plans insufficiently in the face of unfavourable evidence.

When he finally managed to tailor a service to suit his customers, he would still have to decide on a price, and here would face other hazards. The IKEA effect is the tendency to over-value things that we have made ourselves, regardless of their attributes. And once this is done, it’s easy to fall into the trap of the endowment effect, the tendency to demand a higher price for something than people are willing to pay.

If you’re feeling smug at this point, thinking ‘Huh, I don’t do that sort of thing’, be warned. In its many forms, cognitive bias can affect us all. There’s even a name for the skewed thinking that leads to our smugness, it’s called bias blind spot – the tendency to see ourselves as less biased than other people.

As a coach, part of my role is to listen out for cognitive bias. If I hear it, I ask questions like ‘How do you know?’, or ‘What makes you think that?’ I provide a more detached perspective, and my clients get an opportunity to talk through and reflect on their thoughts, feelings, plans and desires.

You will find a list of cognitive biases here.

You will find more information on coaching here.

About Learning

I work on the assumption that we can all be even better at what we do. Therefore, it follows that we are (or can be) always learning.

It helps to know what our learning style is if you want to learn and properly embed new skills and knowledge. We all naturally prefer to learn in different ways. To understand these different ways, Peter Honey and Alan Mumford developed their ‘Learning Styles’ model. They identified four distinct learning styles or preferences and recommend that we should both understand our learning style, and seek out opportunities to learn using that style.

Their four styles are:

Activists. Activists involve themselves fully in new experiences. They are open-minded, not sceptical, and this tends to make them enthusiastic about anything new. Their philosophy is: “I’ll try anything once”.

Reflectors. Reflectors like to stand back to ponder experiences and observe them from many different perspectives. They collect data, both first hand and from others, and prefer to think about it thoroughly before coming to any conclusion.

Theorists. Theorists adapt and integrate observations into complex but logically sound theories. They think problems through in a step-by-step logical way. They assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories.

Pragmatists. Pragmatists are the sorts of people who return from management courses brimming with new ideas that they want to try out in practice. They like to get on with things and act quickly and confidently on ideas that attract them.

If you want to know more about Learning Styles, and know more about your own style, you can download a free questionnaire here.

For me, one of the greatest pleasures in life is being curious and learning new stuff. What have you learnt today?