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How has the information age impacted our cognitive bias?

Our attention span has always been a limited resource, but the information age has changed our general attention further. A study published in 2019 suggests the collective global attention span is narrowing. In 2018 the average human attention span was recorded as just 8 seconds, that’s down a third from 12 seconds in 2000.

Living in a fast paced, always on, and ever changing world, it is reasonable to expect the necessity for fast decision making. This is linked to the adoption of digital lifestyles and the consumption of more media which means our brains are looking for ways to simplify information processing.

 

[What information consumes is] the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” – Herbert Simon, Nobel winner, Economics 1978

 

Whilst a wealth of information allows us to make good decisions, we have to question the quality of that information. If we have a poverty of attention we are more likely to rely on cognitive biases to process information, dial down life’s complexities, and allow us to act quickly.

 

Recognising cognitive bias

Cognitive bias affects everyone’s thinking, so it’s important to recognise how it could be influencing you. It could be something as simple as actively searching for information that confirms your opinion, or searching positively with regards to your view, and negatively for the opposing view. Other examples include learning something small about something new and considering yourself an expert, or blaming external factors when something doesn’t go as you’d planned.

Whilst you may believe you are making informed, logical decisions, when these biases arise, they distort our thinking and lead to poor decision-making. At Manifesto, we enroll our team members in unconscious bias training, to recognise our own prejudgements and learn how to manage them.

 

Types of Cognitive Bias

Cognitive bias can be caused by a number of different things, but for the human brain to make fast decisions, it is mental shortcuts known as heuristics that play a big part in the process. Whilst they can be very accurate, they can also cause errors that trip us up in our decision making. Here are a few examples of cognitive bias:

 

  • The anchoring bias (or focalising) causes people to prize one piece of information or value more highly than any other when making decisions. It’s often the first piece of information they come across, e.g. the list price of a house.
  • The confirmation bias causes people to filter out relevant information that contradicts their previously-held beliefs and seek out information that supports their preconceptions. It’s the reason echo chambers exist.
  • The Dunning-Kruger effect causes unskilled individuals to overestimate their abilities and experts to underestimate their abilities.
  • The information bias causes people to seek out more information for their decisions, even when it can have no effect on their actions.
  • The halo effect causes our initial impression of a person to influence what we think of them overall.
  • The self-serving bias causes people to give themselves credit for successes but blame failures on external causes.

 

You can find more examples of cognitive biases and other natural phenomena that contribute to poor decision making in our Deciding Effectively whitepaper.

 

How might attention span have an impact?

The Microsoft Attention Spans Report (2015) indicates we have 3 types of attention:

  • Sustained: prolonged focus during repetitive activities
  • Selective: avoiding distraction and maintaining response
  • Altering: efficiently switching between tasks

 

I’m sure during lockdown many of us have struggled with sustained and selective attention, needing to become more rehearsed in altering attention instead. Whilst we feel the pressure to switch between tasks, our brains could be more inclined to the anchoring bias as we have less time to seek out alternative information to impact our decisions.

As our attention spans decrease we should be mindful of the Dunning-Kruger effect when engaging in learning a new skill, making sure we do so to the fullest of our ability. We need to allow ourselves the time, away from distractions such as our phones, in order to allow our brain that sustained attention.

The halo effect has a worrying impact in the real world, taking job applications as an example. Our internal bias can perceive some applications as more qualified for the job, which is why organisations need to screen CVs blind i.e. with no personally identifiable data. How does this link to attention span? When 400 people have applied for a job, you’re going to require serious sustained attention, which just isn’t realistic in the information age.

 

Making better decisions

We may now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, but what we do have the ability to do is ask ourselves questions that help fight our internal biases. Next time you make a decision, ask yourself:

  • Have I understood all of the options presented to me, in the same way I understand the option I’ve chosen?
  • Is there someone I can ask that may not have the same view as me?
  • When I researched this, did I do so from both a positive and negative viewpoint?

And finally, did I give that decision the attention it truly deserved?

 

To help your organisation make better decisions download our Deciding Effectively whitepaper. Designed as a toolbox of approaches from a range of thinkers, aimed at helping you make unbiased, informed decisions.

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