Cognitive bias and listening

Cognitive biases—such as believing information that confirms what you already believe—present a major challenge to the idea of the “rational actor.” Cognitive biases are being being studied in practically every field, including law. Bringing the research to a popular audience, Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a challenging but accessible read. And I was happy to learn that Kahneman’s Nobel-Prize winning partnership with Amos Tversky will be the subject of Michael Lewis’s next book.

Also providing an accessible take on cognitive bias, here’s a “Cognitive bias cheat sheet” by Buster Benson. In addition to the concise and helpful text, the visual “Codex” of cognitive biases at the bottom is a brilliant piece of visual storytelling. (This “cheat sheet” was shared by Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Originals plus a forthcoming book with Sheryl Sandburg. His Granted newsletter would be useful to anyone who puts thought into their communications.)

Listen Like a Lawyer has covered cognitive bias before, here and here and here. Reading Benson’s post reminded me of why it’s so important to continue revisiting and emphasizing this topic.

How can cognitive bias affect (or should it be infect) the listening process? I’ll quote a few of Benson’s summaries from the cheat sheet.

For example:

“Bizarre/funny/visually-striking/anthropomorphic things stick out more than non-bizarre/unfunny things.”

Have you ever talked to someone with food stuck between their teeth? It’s so bizarre and distracting you may not have been able to concentrate on what they were saying. That’s the example of a listening problem that came to my mind, anyway.

Also:

“We notice flaws in others more easily than flaws in ourselves.”

When listening to someone face to face, the flaw-finding intuition may kick on, whether the person has food between her teeth or not. This is actually even more true in writing. An interesting study found that people consistently give higher ratings to spoken material than if the exact same words are written down:

“[W]ritten passages lack critical paralinguistic cues that provide critical information about a speaker’s intelligence and thoughtfulness. Your voice is a tool that has been honed over the course of human evolution to communicate what’s on your mind to others. Without even thinking about it, you naturally flood your listener with cues to your thinking through subtle modulations in tone, pace, volume, and pitch. The listener, attuned to those modulations, naturally decodes these cues. That’s why if you claim to be passionate about your prospective job, for example, hearing your passion may be more convincing than reading your passion.”

So perhaps listening creates a bias toward the human connection in face-to-face communication. But what if some of this human connection is distorted in our memories?

“We edit and reinforce some memories after the fact.”

An important part of listening is remembering what has been said in order to form an appropriate response. This is a short-term memory function. In the longer term, as Benson writes, details can be “swapped” or even “injected” into a memory. Remembering what you were thinking during a conversation might in some ways overshadow your memory of the conversation itself.

Such distortions can cause other communication problems:

“We think we know what others are thinking.”

Benson writes that we may be “modeling their mind after our own” in how we think about what they are thinking. This presents an impediment to properly gauging another person’s level of understanding.

Another issue:

“We find stories and patterns even in sparse data.”

Legal listeners may make the most out of the data available such as the paralinguistic cues indicating the speaker’s emotions. Or they may turn their mind inward, hearing a few facts and then instantly connect this client’s situation to a past experience or archetypal story like David v. Goliath.

Some of this gap-filling may happen partly because people think faster than others can talk. This creates the well-known “thought-speech differential”. The excess brain capacity to think, compared with the relatively slow rate of speech, creates mental opportunities to spin stories around the “sparse data.”

And could this differential cause problems? Yes, in several ways.

One issue is a simple intolerance for listening, especially when speakers aren’t perceived to be concise. We’ve all felt that frustration as listeners:

Just get to the point!  

And that frustration can lead to simple “self-help solutions” such as checking one’s phone for more pressing info. Benson writes about how many cognitive biases come from the fundamental human need to act fast. Listening is slower than thought, so it may simply stand in conflict with the brain’s drive to take in information quickly and make a decision. Our collective acclimation to faster and faster pace of receiving information has been written about elsewhere in wonderful sources such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and the work of Sherry Turkle. That topic is too broad for this one post. But it’s connected to the preference for texting over seemingly inefficient phone conversations and voicemails.

The drive to make a decision quickly can also lead the mind to rely on cognitive biases for gap-filling information, sometimes in troubling ways:

“We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories whenever there are new specific instances or gaps in information. “

To put it in even more troubling terms, again quoting Benson:

“We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better than things and people we aren’t familiar with or fond of.”

Legal professionals should be able to work with people from different backgrounds using an open, unbiased approach. Cultural biases can infect the communication processes with numerous distortions, omissions, and other bad effects. As an example of legal work being done to combat those problems, here’s Professor Susan Bryant’s foundational article on the “habits” that build cultural competence. Professor Andrea Curcio has some excellent work in this area as well such as here and here. There are many, many others. On a positive note, Curcio’s work suggests that simply taking a carefully crafted survey can itself have beneficial effects on survey participants. She cites studies involving medical students in the U.S. and U.K. with similar outcomes.

More generally, with all of these cognitive biases around everywhere—just take a look again at that visual Codex of Cognitive Biases to understand how many there are—can anything be done to mitigate their pervasive effects?  Benson suggests studying a simple four-part outline of the problems causing cognitive biases as well as four corresponding consequences of unmitigated cognitive bias. The idea is that by keeping these ideas fresh in your brain, perhaps the “availability bias” privileging this countervailing information will cross over into other assessments our brains are constantly working on.

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