I once worked alongside a guy who managed a small sales staff. He had the unfortunate duty of calling customers who complained. It didn’t happen often, maybe a handful a month. But sometimes they’d occur in bunches – a few weeks would pass without any followed by a single week with three or four.
His reaction was always the same. He’d become agitated. I’d hear him vent about the decline in customer service and insist that something had to change. He would be miserable to be around, and even worse if you were on his sales staff.
It would typically pass, but after witnessing this series of events multiple times it occurred to me how easily we are influenced by what’s right in front of us, causing us to completely ignore the big picture.
The chunks of complaints had more to do with volume and randomness than any changes in customer interaction. The company actually maintained a consistently low level of customer complaints. They just didn’t conveniently arrive over an even distribution of time. Yet when they came in chunks, who wouldn’t have been concerned?
This is known as impression bias: the tendency to let anything that leaves an impression influence the way we think.
We forget most of the insignificant coincidences and remember the meaningful ones. Our tendency to remember hits and ignore misses is the bread and butter of the psychics, prophets, and soothsayers who make hundreds of predictions.” ~ Michael Shermer
A small but convincing sampling of anything is enough for most of us to draw conclusions. This is how we fool ourselves with impression bias.
You’re probably thinking this never happens to you, right? Think again. Here are three ways impression bias fools on a regular basis:
1 – THE NEWS
We are bombarded with the bad, the ugly, and the horrendous, and this affects what we think. Good news doesn’t sell. Charities don’t raise money by saying things are improving. Journalists rarely excite the masses with news of the status quo. And politicians never get elected by announcing that things are pretty good the way they are.
Negativity sells. Combine that with technology that instantly sends us reports from any remote part of the world and we have a recipe for non-stop anguish. We’re not getting the big picture; we are getting whatever garners the most attention.
This is problematic because if all mainstream sources of news focus on the negative, what is likely to be our perception of reality? Let’s be clear though – perception is NOT reality. We’re just being duped by a small yet intense sampling of the big picture.
Matt Ridley adds some interesting perspective in his book The Rational Optimist:
In 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. She was less likely to die as a result of war, genocide, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, scurvy or polio. She was less likely at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease or stroke. She was more likely to be literate and have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a bicycle.”
Statistically speaking things are better than ever. Is this the impression you get watching the news?
Bad things happen. But if you view reality based only on what the news tells you, you’re far more apt to mistakenly think only bad things happen and conclude that things are getting worse. That’s a pretty miserable worldview to live with especially since in most cases its just not true.
2 – VIEW FROM OUR BUBBLE
If we end up falling and breaking our arm the first time we hop on a skateboard, we’re apt to overestimate the dangers of skateboarding. Why wouldn’t we? Yet that impression might have nothing to do with how safe or unsafe being on a skateboard really is.
It is a human tendency to weigh our personal experiences too heavily. Because of the emotional impact of experience, we often assume our small spectrum of experience must equate with the big picture. It is for this reason that anecdotal evidence is considered unscientific
We view the entire world through our own bubble of experiences. The types of places we live, work, and groups we associate with can give the impression that everyone shares similar experiences.
The person working in an office cubicle living in the suburbs is going to have a entirely different worldview than someone who works as a bouncer at a biker bar. You could ask both of them about people’s propensity for violence and you are going to get two wildly different versions.
Ask a parole officer and a doctor about the average number of people who smoke and you can you’ll get answers on opposite ends of the spectrum. Our lives determine a significant proportion of our views.
We’re fooled because our experiences seem so relevant. And why wouldn’t they? They are the only ones we have. But they may not even be close to what others encounter. They may not even match up closely with our own neighbor’s set of experiences.
If we get caught up thinking our bubble is all that matters we’ve already let impression bias cloud our judgment.
3 – LOUD MINORITY
In 2012 Facebook boldly began switching all its users over to the new layout we now all affectionately call Timeline. If you followed any kind of tech news at the time, you’d have witnessed the litany of complaints on just about every article or blog post that discussed the change.
The backlash seemed considerable. People complained in droves, many spoke of abandoning the network, the impression was that Facebook was about to experience some serious blow-back.
Yet the change took place. There was no mass exodus. People adapted. Life went on.
So what happened?
People pleased or indifferent with a product are much less likely to want to find a place to write about it. Those with reasons for discontent, however, will often seek outplaces to vent.
The result is discontent users often drown out the positives and make it appear that everyone is unhappy, and in some cases they seem like a very convincing majority; also known as the "loud minority" .People pleased or indifferent with a product are much less likely to want to find a place to write about it. Those with reasons for discontent, however, will often seek out places to vent.
If we conducted a poll of random people on the street to find out how many even read tech articles (much less comment on them) we’d find most people don’t, and the margin would not even be close. So why then were all those articles and comments so darn convincing?
Facebook’s user base falls somewhere in the billion+ range. A billion people is a staggering large number that is difficult to comprehend. Conceptually the difference between a million and a billion is meaningless to most people,
We could fill a stadium with a hundred-thousand angry people and it wouldn’t make a dent in comparison to that that billion number (1/100th of 1%). Yet if the only people we are hearing from are those 100,000 it seems like everyone on the planet agrees. This is the power of the silent minority. They make quite an impression…but that’s about it.
How often have you fallen victim to your own impressions?