Agents of Influence: Too Little Information

December 8, 2016

 

My daughter recently took up lacrosse. Admittedly, I know nothing about the sport. Thankfully, her coach sent the team parents a one-page summary of the rules of the game and the equipment needed to play. So, I took my daughter and this handy piece of paper to the local lacrosse store to get her outfitted with the appropriate accoutrements of the game.

 

A tall, strapping, enthusiastic young man, about seventeen years old, helped us find the equipment we needed. He explained the nuances of finding the right lacrosse stick for my daughter and, of course, we went along with his recommendation.

 

On our way home I realized I didn’t know anything about the helpful kid at the store. What made him an expert at lacrosse equipment? Had he ever even played the game? When was the last time I had asked a seventeen year old for a recommendation about anything? Why did his recommendation hold water?

 

You already know the answer. When we have too little information or too little experience with something, we defer to someone we believe has more knowledge about the topic.

 

Having too little information is one of five triggers that throw us into our autopilot cognitive processing system, which is irrational and non-analytical. As I mentioned in my last blog, Agents of Influence: The Dreaded TMI, autopilot is where biases, fallacies and poor decisions lurk. Unfortunately, when we defer to someone else’s judgment or expertise we are at the mercy of the biases and fallacies that influence their decision-making. Or worse, relying on someone else’s opinion makes us susceptible to influence practitioners who want to affect our decisions.

 

The solution to this problem is simple. You could better inform yourself or if there isn’t the time or desire to learn more about a topic, seek the opinion of multiple experts and triangulate the answer. This approach helps to weed out the biases held by any single expert.

 

There is, however, a far more insidious problem with autopilot thinking triggered by having too little information. When we meet someone for the first time, we make assumptions about them based on appearances because that’s all we have to go on. We stereotype them. These snap judgments are typically made based on a single attribute, trait, or piece of information and they lead us to form an opinion about someone’s character, likeability and even competence.

 

Unfortunately, even when we receive additional information about that person the initial impression tends to stick. The reason is when we make a decision we look for information that confirms that decision. We decide (often unconsciously), then we justify.

 

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, autopilot thinking is a valuable cognitive tool to help us avoid analysis paralysis. It helps us make decisions faster… which is a good thing. It also leaves us vulnerable to mistakes.

 

How do we avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping due to autopilot thinking? Question your assumptions. Our brains are wired to make snap decisions and judgments. We can’t turn that feature off, but we can become more aware of it. When you meet someone for the first time, pay attention to your assumptions about them. If you find yourself “sizing someone up,” you are actually using associations and biases hidden in your unconscious mind to make judgments about everything from their character to their competence to their net worth. And those associations and biases are often wrong when applied to an individual.

 

When I met that kid in the lacrosse store, I stereotyped him. He looked like an athlete and spoke about lacrosse equipment with confidence. Ok, I did have some information about the young man… he worked in a lacrosse store. Those few pieces of information were all I needed to make a judgment about our helpful salesman. I didn’t question my assumptions until after I had made a purchase and left the store. Clearly, I was on autopilot due to having too little information.

 

Our shopping experience was a low-value situation. My daughter is a beginner at the game, so there really wasn’t any harm in making a bad decision. As she gains experience and her skills improve she will be able to make an expert decision on the lacrosse stick that’s right for her. Had this been a high-value situation, like hiring an employee or meeting a prospective client, I would have questioned my assumptions. Important occasions trigger a response in my cognitive processing to look for biases in my initial impressions and snap judgments. That is how I prevent making mistakes with big decisions.

 

Again, we can’t stop our minds from activating autopilot, but we can question our assumptions when we recognize that we have made a snap judgment.

 

Here’s a simple rule to help you avoid mistakes caused by autopilot thinking due to having too little information: Think before you speak or act. It sounds easy, but it’s not. You must activate your conscious, rational, cognitive processing system when your mind is already cruising along in autopilot. It requires you to be in the moment.

 

My daughter loves her lacrosse stick. Maybe the kid did know something about lacrosse. Or maybe he just grabbed a stick off the wall knowing we wouldn’t know any better. Either way, my daughter’s happy with her choice.

 

Bonus Tip: When you find yourself in a high-value situation and you know you have too little information, get the other side talking and then remain silent. Maintain eye contact, but say nothing. Most people can’t stand awkward silence in a personal interaction, so eventually they will spill the beans and tell you what you need to know.

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