Pillar 5: Using Cognitive Science for Better Outcomes

Cognitive Science Radical Influence
Reading time: 7 Minutes

In what ways does the way humans think matter when we are working to earn a good corporate reputation?

Have you ever watched someone who is so mad that they willingly do themselves damage in the name of “getting back” at the offender? What is going on in that person’s mind to stifle common sense?

Or observed people who have intense fear of flying yet jump into their automobile and do not buckle up? Why is the perception of risk so complicated, contextual, and transient?

How about someone who, no matter what you say to them always gets defensive, or always tries to argue with you. What is driving their behavior?

What is your reaction to someone who calls you by an incorrect, or offensive nickname? How do you feel? Do you overlook the transgression because the other person is very powerful?

Our Brains are Amazing, But Have Not Kept Pace to Reflect Our Current Existence

The mind is a complicated marvel with strong built-in biases that have roots in human evolution. Our social and technological advances have outpaced our ability to evolve. What remains is a brain that has built-in devices to protect us from danger, putting us at odds with our current reality. Some call it the problem of our “lizard brain.”

Just as our eyes preferentially catch the object that moves in our peripheral vision to protect us, our thought process takes leaps of faith, or follows some other type of overly simplified thinking. As with blinking, or noticing motion out of the corner of our eye, the process occurs beyond our control and we are not aware it is happening. We are grateful for these unconscious human protection mechanisms. But when it comes to perceiving, analyzing, and judging situations our hardwired “lizard brains” get in the way.

We Continue to Explore Our Brain’s Functioning

Cognition refers to the processes related to acquiring knowledge and comprehending information. Comparatively, cognition is a higher-level type of thinking. It includes perception, imagination, planning, remembering, judging, and problem solving.

Cognitive Science has been called the interdisciplinary scientific study of the mind. It draws on neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology and even computer science.

Research has uncovered the many biases and brain-to-reality disconnects of our species. There are nearly 50 different cognitive biases that I have come across recently in popular media and peer reviewed journals.

Network neuroscience applies network theory to the increasingly sophisticated mapping of brain regions to specific behaviors and capabilities. This better understanding is made possible by better imaging and sensing technologies. The field now recognizes separately identifiable networks in the brain that are related to specific kinds of mental tasks.

We know a lot about the brain and continue to explore its structure and function. Yet we continue to perceive, make decisions, and act in ways that violate our knowledge about common biases. Even though we may be consciously aware of these biases, our brain keeps processing the same old code as if it were hardwired.

How Do Cognitive Processes and Bias Affect Influence Processes?

Cognitive biases are related to the way people interpret and process information, they play an outsize role in influence and persuasion. Biases affect any range of activities including earning attention to your ideas, the process of advocating, and how to architect effective messaging.

Together with the other pillars of radical influence, the die is cast to make the most impact possible. If you are aware of key developments, have formulated the issues and sorted them for impact, then the next step is to engage key executives and stakeholders. This last step requires thoughtful communication where the appropriate use of communication techniques that reflect the existence of biases can make a key difference.

Rather than focusing only just what to communicate, the how of communication becomes relevant.

Using Emotional Intelligence is Not Enough

The skill that is called emotional intelligence (sometimes called EQ) is related to understanding, using, and managing one’s own emotions to communicate effectively, reduce tension, show empathy and overcome conflict in a relationship. Success is helped by good self-awareness, genuine interest in others, empathy, staying in the moment, and having boundaries of self-control.

All of these items keep the road of communication open, but the road could still be blocked by a cognitive bias that does not allow the other party to see potential options that might actually be good for them.

Paying attention to the recipient’s emotional state could open up additional approaches for getting your message across. But it will do little for overcoming mental biased thinking processes.

Engagement of Any Sort Is a Process Fraught with Cognitive Landmines

Interacting with stakeholders will certainly surface some biases and logical disconnects that must be dealt with. But that is not all. Even interacting with internal executives about your subject area presents challenges which can put a major crimp on building a Business Partnership-based relationship (as described in #4 of this series, ADD LINK).

You might have your argument all laid out. However, if there is a cognitive disconnect, the message will not be interpreted as it was sent. A deeper form of communication must occur for true fidelity between two people or organizations.

Importance of Attentive Listening and Appreciative Inquiry

Persuasion and influence are more than the raw communication of ideas. The process can often be about changing the way people think about a topic. In order to achieve that, one must understand as best as possible the facts that people operate off of, the biases they hold, and their thinking styles.

Only by getting to the underlying assumptions and beliefs that people hold can you approach the high-fidelity communication to achieve radical influence. It takes a little effort to reach this deeper level of understanding. It requires attentive and active listening as well as appreciative inquiry. Investment of time to penetrate the “hows and whys” of a stakeholder’s thought process will open up more avenues for further interaction and better outcomes.

Using existing bias constructively and defensively

Biases may present opportunities to interact at a higher level of sophistication that may unlock opportunities and help limit risks.

If a legislator or regulator is exhibiting the consistency bias, you could counter with an argument that plays on the fear of missing out. If an activist group is exhibiting an anchoring bias, you could ask them for recommendations on a tangential topic. When an executive exhibits a self-serving bias, you could engage them in jointly evaluating tradeoffs.

Bias information helps you understand the context of a situation, develop and assess a broader range of potential responses. This holds true at the external interface with stakeholders, as well as for internal business partners.

Question your own potential biases

Perhaps you think you already knowledgeable about everything in this article. If it confirms what you already knew, perhaps you were playing out a confirmation bias by deciding to read this article. If you think you are doing fine at influence and persuasion, then perhaps you might be playing out a Dunning Krueger effect bias related to over-confidence.

If you see no reason to spend any more time in the pursuit of better influence, is it because you a hold a consistency bias on the topic and see no reason to attempt improvement?

Applying cognitive science is as simple as paying attention to the topic and learning more about biases so that you can recognize or uncover them to determine the extent to which they could impact your work. It does not matter who holds these biases – leaders within your company, external stakeholders, or you, yourself.

To get a better sense of the journey of building competence at leveraging cognitive science in your company, below is an exhibit that show what various stages of maturity might look like.

StageDescriptionExamples of Use of BiasTongue-In-Cheek Analogies
1. Traditional• Focus on traditional communication methods
• Rely on proven methods of the past
• Psychology of persuasion is only rarely considered
• Makes outright appeals to obvious fears in messaging
• Applying cognitive science is mainly a solo exercise performed inside someone’s head
• Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
2. Aware• Psychology of persuasion used in some external programs• Leverage of bias goes beyond copy to program design for significant issues
• Uses limited market research, but not explicitly tied to persuasion, mostly to understanding breakdown of who or what portion support specific positions
• Psychology Today
• “Made to Stick” by the Heath brothers (simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotions, and stories)
3. Practicing• Knowledge of psychology and cognitive science are generally applied to all external programs• Testing of alternative messages for comparison occurs rarely
• Key influencers are examined for what biased thinking flaws might be relevant
• Robert Cialdini’s “Pre-suasion” and “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion”
4. Radical• Psychology and cognitive bias knowledge are fully embedded in all interactions, both internal and external
• Annual continuous improvement initiatives related to role and use of bias information
• Leverages known cognitive bias to help earn attention, build compelling messages, and overcome resistance
• Testing of messages performed regularly and tied to cognitive science-based understanding
• Integrated with market research
• Applying cognitive science is mainly a team discussion exercise that shapes issue-based strategies
• This is a work in progress, so no immediate archetype comes to mind - successful navigators who master cognitive science and employ it thoroughly will become reputational giants

The table should give you some ideas on how to raise your game in deploying the insights we hold about how the human brain functions. Find the level you perform at and ask what your team could be doing to improve to get to the next level.

Cognitive Science is the Next Wave

Across the board Artificial Intelligence (AI) is experiencing a period of high interest and growth. As explained in Part 1 of this series, it allows reputation-shapers to adapt to the explosion of information made available by technology. AI-led Situational Awareness allows deeper and faster insight that yields a competitive advantage.

It appears that based on the amount of research and interest in cognitive science, along with the emerging brain mapping technologies, the field may be the “next big thing” for the influence functions to adopt more fully.

The next piece in our series is a common, yet misunderstood, tool of management that has experienced only limited uptake in the influence world: the process of innovation and improvement.

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