It doesn’t matter how much education you’ve had, how much experience you’ve had in your field or how much effort you put into remaining neutral. The reality is, we’re all biased. Cognitive biases are pervasive and innate, affecting the way we see the world, the way we think about things and the decisions we make as business owners and professionals.
In the business world, we rely on reporting to provide us with raw data and statistical analyses that we can use to push our businesses forward. In marketing, for example, it’s important to review the performance of our campaigns, the tendencies of our customers and other factors to determine the best path for our business.
But although reports are inherently objective (at least, if you’ve prepared them properly), the way we present them, think about them and act on them are all subject to cognitive bias. If you want to make the most informed, objective decisions possible for your business, it’s important to have a strategy in place to avoid bias whenever possible.
Review and understand common biases
One of the most important steps you can take is reviewing and understanding the common cognitive biases that could affect you when creating, sharing and talking about your marketing reports. For example:
- Confirmation bias. Possibly the best-known cognitive bias, confirmation bias is our tendency to disproportionately seek out and consider evidence that backs what we already believe — and downplay or ignore evidence that contradicts it. If you already believe something to be true before you look at the marketing report, you’ll look for ways to prove yourself right. Instead, it’s better to start with as few assumptions and foregone conclusions as possible, then challenge your assumptions actively, trying to prove yourself wrong.
- Status quo bias. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that most people don’t like change and are reluctant to change. It may surprise you to learn that innately, we tend to believe that things won’t change in the future; left unchecked, this bias can blind you to the realities of changing audience preferences, evolving technologies and adaptive competitive landscapes.
- The sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy leads us to continue spending time or money on something that hasn’t paid off in the past, simply because we’ve already invested so much in it. For example, if you’ve spent $50,000 and countless hours on a marketing strategy, you might continue to invest in it — even if there are no immediate prospects for a long-term payoff. Logically, it’s better to cut your losses and move on, but we feel a compulsion to keep going in a desperate bid to make it all “worth it.”
- Optimism bias. If 60 percent of businesses fail at a specific marketing tactic, would you believe that your business would be part of the successful 40 percent? If you’re affected by optimism bias, you might believe it. Optimism bias makes us believe we’re an “exception to the rule,” and that we can overcome on-paper statistics due to something that makes us special.
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These are just a few cognitive biases worth considering; there are dozens more affecting you every day, including overconfidence bias, hindsight bias and anchoring bias. It’s impossible to know and fully understand every bias, but even a cursory understanding can be beneficial.
Challenge your assumptions
I mentioned this in my point on confirmation bias already, but it’s worth remembering — and using to tackle many different kinds of cognitive bias. It’s important to acknowledge your own assumptions and challenge those assumptions however you can. What are you assuming to be true before you even look at the numbers? Are those assumptions accurate? Consider other perspectives and other possibilities and try to prove yourself wrong; you might be surprised at how often you find that proof.
Commit to ongoing learning
Next, commit to ongoing learning. Every entrepreneur and every marketer should be consistently seeking new information and new insights in their field. Read books, listen to podcasts, take classes and get new certifications. You’ll get exposed to new ideas, new ways of thinking and new potential directions you can take your business. Being more informed and better educated won’t exempt you from the effects of cognitive biases, but they will help you better understand your own limitations and expand what you’re capable of.
Talk to others
In some contexts, it’s better for an individual leader to be independent and decisive, so you can avoid the problems of “design by committee.” But it’s still a good idea to talk to other people before making a final call. You may walk away from a marketing report with a specific conclusion, but does everyone else feel the same way? Or did they come to a different conclusion? With a simple conversation, you might find your point of view changes.
It’s hard to minimize the effects of our cognitive biases and it’s downright impossible to eliminate them. But if you’re aware that they exist and you take specific measures to limit their power, you’ll be in a much better position to report on marketing metrics in a more objective way.