Dylan Evans: On biased decision making


Why it’s not actually bad to make biased decisions

“There’s a wide-held belief at the moment that human decisions are biased and therefore intrinsically irrational. But those two things don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. We can be biased in a very rational way.”

So says Dr Dylan Evans, who during a fascinating 20-year career, has been extensively researching, teaching and writing on psychology and philosophy. He’s covered everything from AI and cognitive science to the placebo effect and the mindset of poker players.

He’s now a project manager at Mindlab and in this article, he reveals why bias has helped humans evolve and what you need to know to use emotions positively in brands.

Do you believe there is a case for gut instinct?

“Absolutely. A quick mental shortcut may seem like a suboptimal option compared to a completely rational way of making a decision. But if we were truly rational all the time, we couldn’t survive in a fast-moving world. Would coldly rational Spock from Star Trek, for example, be able to process decisions quickly enough in life and death situations?

“Say you are walking through long grass and see something out of the corner of your eye that looks vaguely like a snake. You panic and run away but when you turn round and look again, you realise it was, in fact, a stick. That seems like an emotional reaction has caused you to waste energy. But imagine someone who lacked this kind of fear response. He might make the opposite mistake and take time to look more closely at the object. In this way, he risks being bitten.

“In a more everyday situation, someone who spends time really considering what shampoo or cauliflower to purchase might be considered the perfect rational consumer but will probably take an incredibly long time to make it around the supermarket.”

Do people understand they are being influenced by emotions all the time?

“They do but they often underestimate the strength of the emotion they have so they will take it into account to some extent but not enough. In one set of tests we undertook, we asked people to imagine how they would react under the influence of a certain emotion. Then we used a priming technique to induce that emotion and people were affected far more than they had anticipated.”

How do you use this knowledge in your work at Mindlab?

“I’m always looking for the emotions we should be aware of in our research. For instance, brands should consider the impact on people’s emotions of:

  • Colour We all know in some countries blue is calming, red is exciting and so on. But did you know colour, amongst other things, affects how quickly people perceive time is moving?
  • Audio My colleagues undertook a test where French music was played in the wine aisle and it boosted sales of French wine. But when asked to explain the reason for their purchase, the buyers didn’t mention music suggesting it was only heard subliminally.
  • Children Parents are much more likely to be concerned about future generations so using young people in campaigns can encourage longer-term thinking.

“It’s not about using this knowledge to manipulate people. It’s about being aware of the full picture of how consumers are processing information so you can position your brand or product in a context that is both accurate and appealing.”

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