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COGNITIVE BIAS #122: Attentional Bias

When we reach a decision or conclusion without considering all of the contributing factors and possible outcomes, attentional bias has been allowed to influence our deliberations.

A simple example of this bias (as well as a tool for avoiding it) is demonstrated with the use of a matrix to enumerate all the possibilities of a situation. Consider the political slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” intended to induce participation by inspiring guilt in the listener. Its effectiveness is dependent upon the audience not considering all the possibilities when evaluating it.

The matrix below illustrates all the possibilities of being part of either “the problem” or “the solution.” (At least those which exclude the partial options such as being slightly part of the problem and mostly part of the solution, but we digress.)

While the slogan suggests that being part of the solution or not is inversely related to being part of the problem or not, the matrix demonstrates that the two factors might be independent of each other and that there are two other possibilities to consider.

The cells in green are those offered by the slogan: either one has joined nobly the side of the solution while having no part in the problem OR one has remained part of the problem having dodged their responsibility to be part of the solution. There are no other possibilities.Yet, there are other possibilities excluded by the slogan and these are enumerated in the cells in salmon: one can be part of neither the problem nor its solution OR part of both the problem and the solution.

To express this in a more concrete way, consider a building on fire. Either one has started it (accidently, we hope) or not AND then has the choice either of helping to put it out or not.

Just as with the political form of this construction, we can see that all the options are possible, even as some are more admirable than are others.

The use of attentional bias to persuade is a powerful tool in advertising; think of the many blind taste-tests we’ve witnessed on television, the ones in which only two options are given. Perhaps there is a truly amazing cola out there and neither Coke™ nor Pepsi™ would be the subject’s preference if given the chance to try a third. However, their attention is directed to only two cups of brown, sparkling beverage to try and they have to make their choice from that limited field.


One comment on “COGNITIVE BIAS #122: Attentional Bias

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