This time last year, this tree had a bra. Actually, 2 or 3. I can’t remember exactly how many.
Not far from this tree, there is a bridge with lots of locks in its railings, tied by couples as a symbol of their love. It’s a tradition. Maybe the bra-thing is a tradition, too, I thought (for instance, a variation of this). A few days and some more ‘cues’ later, I was pretty sure that this was some sort of tradition.
Fast forward to one year later. I walk past the tree, and there are no bras. The tree lost its bra. Puzzled, I ask a local, who tells me that there is no such tradition. And never was. It was just a simple, and very silly, case of confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is a cognitive situation where I am more likely to notice information that confirms a prior belief than information that challenges it, just like I noticed the locks on the bridge. Moreover, when presented with ambiguous information (e.g., no other trees have bras), my interpretation is biased towards reinforcing my prior belief (e.g., because this tree has a special meaning). Not only that, but the further my train of thought progresses down a particular path, the harder it is for me to reverse it.
Let’s take the case of blaming behaviours, for instance. Imagine that I notice that my favourite flower vase is broken. The first step in my mental process is to decide whether this is someone’s fault. I consider various alternatives, and conclude (wrongly!) that my son did it. My assessment of the situation is now set. I, then, move on to consider whether my son broke my vase on purpose or not. At this stage, even if I am presented with information contradicting my conclusion that he is to blame, I am very unlikely to consider it, because my mind is now busy collecting information to help me decide whether this was intentional. And to add insult to injury, the perceived motivation for doing harm (e.g., my son was cross with me because I did not let him play on his video console) will work to reinforce my previous belief that it was his fault. This paper, offers a great overview of research into blaming, which you should definitely read if you need to deal with customer complaints.
The cognitive bias increases when:
- There is a negative outcome for the accuser;
- There is a difference in authority between accused and accuser;
- The accuser (i.e., me) has strong emotional feelings about the subject, favours retribution, and believes that the harmful behaviour is widespread and goes pretty much unchecked.
And it is not all about bras or broken vases, of course. Blaming is a matter of business life, and particularly likely in scenarios like:
- Self-service environments – e.g., searching for information or buying something online
- Stereotypical accusations – e.g., young drivers cause more traffic accidents than average
- High expectations – e.g., that an haircut will dramatically improve my appearance
So, how can we do to deal with unfair blaming?
The accused needs to focus on the wrong assumption and keep providing information that challenges that assumption (see figure). That is, my son should focus on the fact that he did not do it, not whether he was cross with me or not.
Figure: Blame mitigation strategies (Source: Malle et al 2014)
It will not be easy to reverse the process, though, as the longer / stronger the belief, the higher the cost for me of being wrong – for instance, loosing face, accepting lack of competence, realising betrayal, and so on. The costs of being wrong will further bias my information search and interpretation process. This is why some companies prefer to offer some form of repair or compensation when a complaint emerges, even when it is not their fault.
In the end, though, the best way to deal with complaints is to minimise the likelihood of any problems occurring in the first place. Improve the design, test and retest, and fool-proof the process.
As for that tree, it actually looked better with the bra ;-)