Using Biases to Win

Whether you’re preparing for a meeting, changing your organization, or attempting to corral unruly employees/campers, you will be much more successful if you make use of people’s cognitive biases. People like to feel street smart. They like to feel important. They like to believe that they have understood what is going on and have made an informed, intelligent choice based on that comprehension.

If you set things up cleverly, you can take advantage of this and are more likely to get people to choose whatever results you want. In addition to getting the result you desire, you are also giving people a feeling of agency, which enhances their buy-in and perseverance.

For a few marketing examples of decoys, check out this blog post. For a comprehensive and easy to read list of cognitive biases, read this.

I have often found that you can blend together a bunch of biases to get things going your way. Before you jump to some kind of “wow that’s manipulative” conclusion – check yourself – this is how we do things all the time, I’m just talking about being more deliberate and increasing your effectiveness. If you genuinely care about people and want the best for you/them/the institution, then you’re not being manipulative, you’re being effective. Here are a few examples I’ve found useful over the years:

  • I take really good notes for each staff member’s exit interview each fall/winter. This helps people feel like they are important and that they have a say in how things go.
  • Once I have a library of notes, I make sure to quote people to each other as often as possible. This means frequently re-reading the notes and is a time commitment, but people can imagine you quoting things they’ve said to others, which ensures people feel like they have agency and importance. It also makes people want to be mentioned in the future by you so they will focus more and try harder to impress you or be memorable.
  • If I had an idea of a change I wanted to happen, I would ask a bunch of people what they thought about it. After the first person, I would be able to use the quote method mentioned above too! When I instituted the change later on, no one would question it, as most of them had already had a chance to express their opinion – and their opinion was tempered and massaged by the fact that I chose to quote peers whom they respected who agreed with the change or peers whom they didn’t respect who disagreed with the change.
  • People prefer to be happy – if you emphasize positive aspects of something in a way that expresses how long it will make them happy, they will be more likely to believe you. Since we start and emphasize that “Camp is for the Camper”, I will also often mention how what you do with kids this week will stay with them for the rest of their lives. If your extra little bit of effort today results in lifelong positive changes for a kid, you are likely to put in that extra little bit of effort.
  • People will take risks to avoid negative outcomes. If a counselor is worried about their cabin  not getting along or meshing, they are much more susceptible to suggestions that involve creative solutions. This doesn’t work for positive outcomes, if a counselor is optimistic about being able to get their cabin back on track, suggest things that involve less risk. This logic works exactly the same when dealing with a camper – if they are afraid of not making friends they are willing to take more risks to get friends, if they expect to make friends, they will be more likely to respond to suggestions that don’t involve as much social risk.
  • Say it in a new and inventive way and people will remember it. Say it with a pun or a rhyme or an unusual physical flourish and it will be embedded in people’s memories.

I think I’ll have to do a series of posts moving forward digging deeper into how we use cognitive biases in a variety of ways and settings. Most social interactions are filled with overlapping biases, and people who are aware of and make use of the biases in themselves and others are powerful and effective.


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