On Writing: Cognitive Bias

I have a slightly different topic to discuss today!

Something which is of immense interest in psychology and has really taken off as a topic for fascination in the mainstream is cognitive biases. Biases have a lot of relevance in writing especially when it comes to editing and feedback and I think discussing them can be useful in general anyway (ok maybe I’m just geeking out in psychology but whatever)

Cognitive biases sound like irrationality incarnate but its more accurate to say that they are essentially identified ways in which human beings think and behave that are not purely rational. Ironically for many centuries human beings were assumed to be purely rational creatures who, however it is far more accurate to describe us as intelligent beings who are capable of rationality but its not the default setting.

It’s really important not to slip into a defensive perspective and assume that this is a bad thing. The book Predictably Irrational is amazing on the topic and this is weird to get one’s head around, but being less than rational is actually a good thing. First of all life and the world is horribly/wonderfully irrational and our brains need to help us survive in it by making quick useful decisions – we’re not pulling out our pros and cons notebook every time we cross the road. Second many of our biases actually aid in making useful decisions, its only in certain situations where suddenly people appears to be terrible decision makers that cognitive bias becomes a major problems (see: all of politics)

Anyway there are tonnes of different quirks and traits that have been identified as common or universal biases inhuman thinking, but I think four in particular are useful to consider as writers.

Anchoring

Is an unusual bias, like many it may seem not that flawed at first. This is the tendency to incorporate prior information into our judgments, which sounds reasonable at first until you realize this occurs more around temporal proximity (stuff that happens immediately before) regardless of whether it is relevant or not.

Anchoring bias is used all the time in marketing, for example showing consumers original prices next to discounted (you should not buy things based on how discounted they are but by whether their price is fair at all). Again this bias makes a lot of sense because how else are we to make sense of the world but by linking things together? But the problem often occurs when we don’t realize how we’ve been influenced by unrelated material.

How does this link to writing?

Anchoring bias is important to consider because as a creator you as a writer will be influenced by a whole raft of factors in any given moment, which is great really for creativity, but its important to be aware of the anchoring effects of any given point. Especially during editing you may be unduly influenced by the words you’ve already laid down (which is a common theme in this post) the coffee you just drank before sitting down or the last work you read.

Now being influenced by stuff really is kinda the creative process, but what I think is worth considering is your readers will largely be working through your story as is, they will in effect be anchored by whatever words you put down, so as a writer/editor you want to be considering what the reader will be experiencing as they read your words not what you experienced as a writer to get there.

Sunk Cost

The Sunk-Cost fallacy is such an entrenched way of thinking its hard to sometimes accept that its an irrational bias. The Sunk-Cost fallacy is the perception that the amount of effort, resources or other energies that we’ve already put into a decision is important in whether that is the right decision. That is our ‘costs’ increases the value of something.

In terms of emotional experience his isn’t necessarily illogical, as we don’t want to see our energies go to waste, and we want to achieve the goal we perceive we’re working towards. Where the bias sets in is failing to see that emotional need isn’t relevant to whether that decision is correct or not (and perhaps should be abandoned).

Sunk Cost fallacy is common in financial decisions (including gambling) and is sometimes referred to as “throwing good money after bad”. For example folks might lose x amount of dollars gambling and find themselves thinking that the best decision is to continue gambling to try and earn that x back, when logic suggests that’s a good way to lose 2x dollars.

The sunk-cost fallacy can be seen in all manner of situations. Bosses push dud work projects because they perceive the efforts already made as wasted if they give up, people consider how long they have been in a bad relationship to be a good reason to stay (let’s maybe not dive into that one).

When is comes to writing Sunk-Cost fallacy is huge, because it related to all those tricky decisions around which projects to pursue, ‘killing your darlings’ and accepting feedback or editing suggestions. Let me assure you, a reader does not care how long you laboured over a scene if its a terrible piece of writing for your book.

Even though I know all this I still find the concept of how much a draft might have to change daunting once I’ve actually written something. It’s kind of a combo of different biases because its not that I’m so arrogant I think my piece is perfect immediately, its more that its hard to even perceive major changes once words are down on paper(micro-soft word).

The important part of sunk-cost fallacy is realizing that sunk costs create a powerful emotional reaction that we should acknowledge and attend to BUT realize that reaction does not factor into an objective decision about the best direction for your writing!

Backfire effect

The Backfire effect is a strange one that is an important element of combating the above two bias. When I first heard about the backfire effects I was completely flummoxed, I didn’t believe it. The backfire effect is the stronger the argument given against our point of view the more we dig our heels in and stick to our point of view. How does that even work?

Yet the more I thought about it the more I saw it – internet forums are rife with this, people endlessly arguing opposing points, sometimes with incredible detail and passion and not getting anywhere with their opponents. For myself I realized the backfire effect is totally real – if someone presents a strong argument against my point of view, nine times out of ten that galvanizes me to work harder to backup what I believe.

I’m getting my psychology geek on again, but this fascinating effect relates to how arguments make us feel, not just being irrational twits (ok a little of that). Basically when a powerful argument against us is made, we understandably feel tense, possibly frustrated. There is a deep irony here that our inclination then is to seek to reduce our discomfort by confirming our own view point.

(the oddest thing about this is that the most persuasive arguments tend to be flawed but relatable thesis, rather than 10 pages of purely logical evidence based argument – this is because people’s defensiveness isn’t triggered so they are more likely to reflect on your points and have their view swayed – the world is a strange place)

In case this common theme hasn’t become apparent, this relates to writing in that when you’re editing especially with feedback from others: the best feedback they give might in fact give you the worst emotional response and may ‘backfire’ making you double down on your original sunk-cost work.

Transparency illusion

This is a slightly different bias – that I have a tendency to report slightly incorrectly.  Transparency illusions relate to having difficulty understanding that what we know or experience isn’t as obvious to others. This can range from being annoyed at your partner not picking up on how you feel – to a really interesting one where once we know something its very difficult to see that knowledge as any other than obvious. For example try asking people a general knowledge question that you are sure they don’t know. It’s surprisingly hard (its a bit easier to ask incredibly specific or technical knowledge).

Transparency illusion is very important to consider when writing for detail and clarity. I am absolutely terrible at this element, its very easy to know what you mean by your writing (duh) and really hard to read over your own work with fresh eyes. I don’t really have a magical wand for this one, but I think this is why beta-readers and editors are extremely important – this is also why sometimes its useful to let a draft ‘sit’ for a while before re-writing as the break can help purge your brain of ‘what you knew you meant’ at the time of writing.

I’m pretty sure there are tonnes of other bias relevant to writing, luckily they also make good story fodder for finding character flaws or sources of tension!

What other biases interest you guys, and how do you think they relate to writing?

 

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2 thoughts on “On Writing: Cognitive Bias

  1. Interesting take!

    Right that these can be useful heuristics (the sunk cost fallacy helped me finish my novel) but need to be treated skillfully (spending more time founded on the wrong decision does just increase the wasted time).

    Liked by 1 person

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