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How We Evaluate Information

This is this first article in a short series of the different cognitive biases and heuristics that are at work when we evaluate information. For example:

  • what factors (whether internal or external) influences our attention?
  • What factors affect our purchasing decisions?

We all know that we do not know everything. The vast minority of the ocean bed has been explored, and the same can be said about the humble brain. But what you might not have known is that you do not even know what you know. Take cryptomnesia, for example. Someone can share a thought, idea or information, you forget about it and it returns to you without being recognised as being forgotten. If you are a songwriter, this can happen in the form of writing your own, “unique” lyrics without realising that the lyrics come from the song Memory by Barbra Streisand (how ironic!!!).

the unconscious mind makes up 95% of our mental processes
Now, you have a conscious and a subconscious mind. It is a well-known fact that the unconscious mind makes up 95% of our mental processes. 95%!!! (I cannot remember how many times I got that for a test or exam, but I know it was at least once for a memory test.)  The conscious mind is more rational, whereas the unconscious mind is more emotion — which explains why  we are often not aware of our emotional decisions.

Our reptilian brain is also part of the unconscious. In an experiment in 2003, experimenters grouped random volunteers into two groups. Participants were then further divided into groups of two where one person per group was given $10.  One of the first group were shown ‘neutral’ pictures, and the other group ‘business’ pictures. What happened next illustrates an ever-present effect in our daily lives. 91% of the groups that were shown neutral photos decided to split the money evenly. On the other hand, the group that saw the ‘business’ pictures only 33% split the money in their partner’s favour.*

This anecdote shows that what happens easily influences our subsequent decisions, and in profound ways. Psychologists have replicated this experiment over and over and over and over in many, many, many different ways and contexts and have reached the exact same conclusion. They have even given it a name: priming.

It is my thinking that the stimuli that we experience that causes us to act in certain ways (i.e. what primes us) goes a long way to explain causation. That is, the relationship between cause and effect. The journalist Jonah Lehrer wrote a very insightful article not too long ago in Wired magazine explaining exactly why we see causal relationship and hence why science is failing us. Pfizer assumed  that understanding a drug system’s different parts means we also understand the causes within the system; that “raising levels of HDL cholesterol and lowering LDL would lead to a predictable outcome: improved cardiovascular health. Less arterial plaque”. But it never happened. And this proved to be a very costly $1 billion error and a company value-plunge by $20 billion.

So we are actually primed to seek out causal relationships. I argue that the reason we are causal in nature is because we want to create stories (narratives) so that we can better remember things. Remember in high school how you were taught to string things together into a coherent story to make it easier to remember? I rest my case.

*This is a simplified version of the real McCoy. For the full version, refer to David McRaney’s excellent book You’re not so smart.


Marketing Implications

Anywhere where a customer is made aware of certain stimuli (e.g. someone baking pancakes outside a retail store) is an olfactory stimulus to buy some desserts in-store. You will be surprised at the many decisions that you make or cannot explain the reason for your decisions. Casino’s specifically do not have clocks or windows to prevent customers from being primed by external stimuli that might make them leave the Blackjack table. So next time you buy something that wasn’t on your shopping list, think of all the stimuli that you could have been exposed to.

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Werner van Zyl
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