Bias

Before I start I would like to say that I do not have a background in psychology, what I have done is read about the subject, in particular Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb and The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli which form the basis of my knowledge for this article. Beyond this I have simply opened my eyes to the bias around me. My hope is that this article will help you do the same.

Although this article is aimed primarily for international development organisations the effect of bias and ideas discussed here affect every individual and organisation.

So what is bias: by definition it is “an inclination or outlook to present or hold a particular perspective”. I prefer to describe it as: Every decision or idea you have is based on every decision, idea and interaction you have had. In other words your bias is the entirety of your past. For this reason there can be no un-bias decision as this would require an individual to have no past.
Now some among you may be thinking “what about when the decision has no links to anything in your past”, at this point your mind may think you are un-bias, in reality you are unconsciously using your life’s experiences and knowledge to derive an answer. Which is bias.

If everything is bias then what is the point? The aim of this article is to make you aware of some types of bias that can have a significant influence, put a name to them and hopefully create a higher awareness in your decision making process.

So let us look at some examples starting with the ‘confirmation bias’ for no other reason other than it is known as the mother of all misconception. It is the tendency to unconsciously twist information so that it fits pre-existing theories. This is extremely prevalent in situations when emotions are involved, let us use the example of identifying a community for a charity to work in. If the person identifying the community has visited there, then you may often hear “I have seen how bad it is with my own eyes”. Which if you think about it is not a comparison between that and a different community but simply confirmation bias at work, changing the importance of that community to fit your desire to help that community.
This also links in with ‘personification’ your minds inclination towards emotion and action associated with a person or personified character rather than facts and numbers. Personification is one of the most common bias used in social sector advertising and advertising in general. Think about an advert you have seen from a charity… What is it that springs to your mind? Statistics and figures about that need? Or is it a child’s face staring back at you? Now, stop and really think about what is more important, that is the power of personification.

The Black Swan focusses primarily on the probability of rare events with dire consequence (‘black swans’) and how we fail to predict them before they occur and how afterwards we rate the probability of them happening much higher, ‘hindsight bias’. Now imagine as a social organisation that you are working somewhere and you are investing in that community. Infrastructure, housing, what would it take for that all to be wiped out by a war, tsunami or other natural disaster? Although you may have taken a moment to consider these, did you ever look at the probability of these occurring?
Continuing along the same train of thought there is a strong tendency to not recognise the multiple causes of a problem (in the case where it isn’t a black swan) and more often than not to try to attribute a problem to a single cause ‘the fallacy of the single cause’.

The majority of social sector organisations will say their biggest issue is cash flow, for that matter this is the biggest issue for almost any organisation. Now most people in this world want to help their fellow man and we all know about the amount of excess in the world, so why is it so hard to get donations. Bias. There are so many different things at play here but to name a few.
‘Affect heuristic’ the momentary judgement you make, when you hear something you like or don’t like. We have said that (almost) everyone likes helping people but the same applies that people do not like parting with money and unfortunately that is the first thing that comes to mind. The ‘affect heuristic’ then causes us to think of all the negatives associated with charity, “where’s the money going?”, “why are they bothering me?” and so on. Whilst also stopping you from remembering the people we would be aiding.
‘Paradox of choice’, there are so many different charities out there, doing similar things. So many that you may not be able to decide which one to donate to and therefore do not donate to any, an issue faced a lot in modern life.

Let us now look at it from the other perspective. How to use bias for fundraising. A very strong bias is ‘social proof’, otherwise known as herd instinct. When you see a group of people looking at something or doing something it gives you the social acceptance to do it yourself, and at a deeper level by doing it you satisfy the risk of not missing out.
So if you have managed to get people around you, what is next?; ‘liking bias’ is one of the most powerful tools and one almost every salesperson will tell you is their trick to success. That is ‘making people truly believe that you like them’ and therefore they are far more susceptible to your pitch. This covers everything from the way you talk to them, to how attractive they think you are.
The final bias to look at is ‘reciprocity’; the psychological need for people to return a positive action with a positive action. So how can you utilize this? It is quite simple, give something away for free and the return will far exceed the gift.

I have only had the opportunity to touch on the subject bias, if you want to learn more please read ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’. For more on sustainability and how we overcome bias at Wessex Social Ventures please get in contact with us.

Adam Boxer
Director
Wessex Social Ventures