Tag Archives: Cognitive Biases

Familiarity breeds affection

Why is it that you can look at something for months and months and have no discernible affection towards it, and then one day – you love it! You need to buy it and own it! It needs to be in your life! All of a sudden your attitude is totally transformed. It all seems a bit suspiciously impulsive, and it’s hardly the mentality of the thoughtful, circumspect consumer that many people would like to be. But it does happen from time to time, and it leads one to wonder – what flips the switch? Why do feelings of relative indifference transform into sudden admiration and a compulsion for ownership of the desired object? It might have something to do with a cognitive bias called the mere-exposure effect.

The mere-exposure effect describes how people tend to have a more favourable view of things they are familiar with; hence, merely being exposed to something can make you like it more than things that you haven’t been exposed to. Plenty of research over the decades has established it as a robust psychological phenomenon that is evident in a wide variety of contexts. For example, in one experiment, participants who weren’t familiar with Chinese characters were shown a series of them and asked to rate them. In the exposure stage, one group of participants was shown the same 5 characters five times each, and another group of participants was shown 25 different characters once each. In the testing stage that followed, all participants were shown a series of images – including a mix of characters they had just seen in the exposure stage and characters they hadn’t seen in the exposure stage – and were asked how much they liked each one. The liking ratings for characters the participants had seen before was higher than the ratings for the characters they hadn’t seen before. Also, the liking ratings were higher in the group who had seen the same 5 characters five times (so the characters felt more familiar) than in the group that had only seen 25 different characters. So the more you see something, the more it feels familiar and the more you like it. The group that saw the same 5 characters five times each also reported feeling happier after the experiment than the group that saw 25 different characters – evidence that simply creating feelings of familiarity can have a positive effect on your mood.

The twist here is that the participants weren’t even consciously aware of the characters they had seen in the exposure stage. Each character was flashed up for just 5 milliseconds – way too fast for anyone to consciously see. So during the subsequent testing stage, when the characters were flashed up for 1 second each and participants rated how much they liked each character, the participants had no idea which characters they had or hadn’t seen just before. They couldn’t recognise any of the characters as being familiar. Despite that, their brains had still performed basic visual processing of the characters, and subsequently the characters that participants had been exposed to during the exposure stage somehow implicitly felt more familiar and were consequently more greatly liked.

This means that even things that fly under your radar are being processed by your brain, and the more you see something, the more you might end up liking it, even if you’re not sure why. Of course, this isn’t true of absolutely everything – we don’t like everything we’re repeatedly exposed to, and sometimes being exposed to something too much is a bad thing because it creates too many associations and it all gets a bit confusing. But the mere exposure effect could have some sort of influence in driving us to like and desire things we might have otherwise been quite indifferent to.

When hindsight is distinctly not beneficial

I’ve seen some disturbing instances of post-purchase rationalisation bias. This bias is what it says it is: it’s the tendency to rationalise a purchase after you’ve made it. The thing is, this bias is a type of choice-supportive bias – that means that when you evaluate a choice in hindsight, you tend to see the choice as better than perhaps it actually was. Maybe you were a bit uncertain about your choice as you were making it, but once it was made – oh no, it was definitely the right choice! It was so incredibly superior to the other option, no doubt about it. In fact, the other option was kind of awful, really. Lucky you’re so good at making awesome decisions!

So the post-purchase rationalisation bias means you tend to highlight the positive attributes of an item you’ve chosen to buy, since you probably consider the choice to have been a good one (otherwise you wouldn’t have made it, right?). That’s not to say that no one ever regrets a purchase, but this bias of the brain means that in most cases, you are more likely to try to see your choice as positive – particularly if the item was expensive.

It seems kind of harmless, since it’s presumably a good thing to make yourself happy with what you’ve ended up with, especially if you’ve invested a lot of money in it. Surely that’s preferable to always doubting your choice or lamenting not choosing the other option. However, the danger comes in not learning from one’s mistakes. If people (maybe me, maybe you, under the right circumstances) are willing to explain away negative aspects of their choices and over-emphasise the positive aspects, they put themselves at risk of making further poor (and expensive) choices in the future.

For example, I’ve seen a person explain away the handle falling off their expensive designer bag quite soon after purchase. They presumably reasoned that the bag must still be great because, well, they chose it and it cost that much, which led them to purchasing another of the same bag – just in a different colour this time. Was that a good decision? Well, it’s not my place to judge, but this bias does seem to lead to not learning from your mistakes – and then paying heftily for it. So if you’re interested in being a thoughtful consumer, maybe try to be as objective as possible when you’re evaluating your choices in hindsight. With this cognitive bias, the benefit of hindsight suddenly seems a bit more wayward and capricious than you would hope for from a so-called “benefit”.

Bothersome biases of the brain: restraint bias

Your brain is rather adept at skewing things in a surprisingly convenient direction – in a lot of ways, it tends to make you think you’re more skilled and more aware than you actually are. Being a little bit self-assured of our beliefs and behaviours is somewhat adaptive and useful – we don’t always want to be cowering in fear and doubt about every little thing in day-to-day life, paralysed by hesitation and skeptical of our ability to succeed in matters large or small. But unfortunately, that little proclivity to over-estimate our own abilities gives rise to another little bias that holds us in thrall when it comes to many different matters, including consuming and spending. That is restraint bias.

Restraint bias is the tendency for people to assume that they’re going to be better at restraining their behaviour than they actually are. This pertains to various realms of assorted impulses, such as hunger, drug-craving and – seemingly likely – purchasing things. You’re over-confident about your ability to restrain yourself when tempted by something you want, and this can lead you to expose yourself to situations where the thing you want is conveniently available. And – surprise surprise – you often can’t resist it when it’s right there in front of you.

This has some very serious implications. For example, in a study by Nordgren and colleagues, published in the research journal Psychological Science in 2009, it was found that ex-smokers with a stronger belief in their own ability to control their impulses are much more likely to relapse into smoking again, precisely because they thought they could resist the temptation and therefore exposed themselves more willingly to the temptation – maybe they let themselves walk past the cigarette counter at a store instead of avoiding it, or maybe they too willingly went to social occasions even when they knew there would be people smoking there.

For perhaps slightly less serious implications, those wanting to curb their purchasing in general might be able to see what they need to do to avoid the consequences of restraint bias. It seems a bit self-evident, but if you don’t want to make needless purchases – don’t go into shops and don’t browse online retail sites. Don’t expose yourself to the temptations. You may think you’ll be able to resist, but the very existence of that opinion might mean you’re inclined to fail.

Bothersome biases of the brain: confirmation bias

The human brain is pretty fancy. A lump of tissue – 100 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses – with the job of keeping you alive, generating your consciousness, allowing you to perceive and interact with the environment, allowing you to communicate in incredibly complex ways, allowing you to interpret a complex world and the other people in it. So you have to cut it some slack if, sometimes, it uses shortcuts. It uses shortcuts, and it relies on assumptions, and it likes to fit things into neat classifications in order to understand them quickly and effectively. And that can be a little bit of a problem.

The brain is prone to a lot of biases that are the result of the fact that, somehow, in some situations, they are (or were) advantageous. The ability to react quickly to your surroundings and to understand and gauge things efficiently are obviously of use from an evolutionary perspective. But applied to more rarefied, sophisticated contexts, such as complex decision-making in modern society, our brains can be a bit oafish.

One of these biases is confirmation bias – the tendency to only look for, or to over-emphasise, the information that confirms an opinion you already hold, or that you wish to hold. Confirmation bias can bias the way you search for information (like if you’re looking at reviews of a product you’re thinking about buying but you tend to skim over the negative reviews, or you read a couple of positive reviews then stop looking for further reviews) or it can bias the way you interpret information (so if a review of a product was neutral or vague, you might somehow manage to convince yourself that it was actually a little bit positive, or you might read a negative review but then decide, for whatever reason, that the author is probably actually a raving idiot).

Obviously, confirmation bias can effect your decision-making process when it comes to purchases. Consuming responsibly means (to me, at least) trying to make good decisions about purchases in an effort to minimise wastefulness and redundancy and to maximise use and longevity. The first step in minimising the effect of confirmation bias on a decision involves being aware that confirmation bias exists – so that’s accomplished now. It requires effort, but you really can force yourself to evaluate information more objectively – not purely objectively (that is simply not possible) – and improving your ability to be objective, by however much, can only be a good thing.

  • Make yourself read those negative reviews rather than ignoring them or only giving them a cursory glance. Read that contrary information and try to give it due consideration.
  • Pay attention and learn about your own tendencies and then try to navigate them (for example, I have a tendency to ignore information contrary to my beliefs if it’s poorly written or contains bad spelling, because I’ll think something like “Oh, this person can’t even spell ‘burgundy’, why should I listen to anyone who spells it ‘burgandy’?” but really what I’m doing is letting a cognitive bias skew my thinking).
  • Keep asking yourself whether the conclusion you keep coming to is just a bit too convenient, given that it was the conclusion you wanted to come to.
  • Discuss it with an uninvested party (friends, family members, people on an internet forum – whoever might be more impartial than you).
  • Just just keep thinking about your thinking. Do some meta-thinking. You can really learn a lot from it.

More on other cognitive biases in future posts.