The first people to speak will influence you.

The first people to speak will influence you.

The first people to speak will influence you.

Imagine once more that you are awaiting your turn to speak. This time it is not to give your general recommendation of the best course of action, but to give your firm judgement on something. It might be the price you think a product should be sold for, or how long the Tories will claim that austerity is needed, or whether the price of pork bellies will go up or down next week.

You think the answer is “A”, and that is what you are going to say when it is your turn.

The first person says “B”.

The next person agrees, “B”.

And so on. Everyone before you has said “B”.

What do you say?

I have written before about reputational cascades, where you don’t say what you really feel because you don’t want to risk the bad opinion of the others in your group. However, there is another kind of cascade – an “informational cascade”. This is where you begin to doubt your own judgement because of those before you giving a different answer. You don’t go along with the others out of fear of rejection this time, but because you begin to think you must have been wrong.

Solomon Asch conducted an experiment in the 1950s on whether people would conform to the majority view in this way. He showed the group one line on its own, and a group of 3 lines. With each of 18 sets like this they went around the room asking people which line of the 3 was closest to the one on its own.

Actually, only one person in the group was a real participant. The rest were stooges, who all agreed on an incorrect line in 12 of the 18 tests. 32% of the time (about one third) the real participant went along with them and also chose the (very obviously) wrong answer. About 75% of the participants went along with the wrong, majority choice at least once.


Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

“Will a major storm devastate a small island in the near future?” An example of the availability heuristic.

“Will a major storm devastate a small island in the near future?” An example of the availability heuristic.

Do you think a major storm is likely to devastate a small island quite soon? I am no meteorologist but, being a psychologist, I expect that your answer to this question was “yes”.

Two horrific storms are lashing different parts of the world as I write this. The newspapers and websites are full of the devastation in the Philippines and the Eastern USA. You would have been hard pressed not to see the headlines and images of rain, wind and landslides.

So, when I asked if you thought a major storm was likely to devastate an island, you found it very easy to conjure up an example or two of major storms. And the ease with which you came up with the examples would have dictated your response. Unless you are a meteorologist, I expect you have no knowledge of the actual likelihood of major storms. You can only go by instinct.

If you find it easy to think of an example of something, you will conclude that it is more likely to happen. If you find it difficult, you will conclude that it is less likely to happen. This is called the availability heuristic, and it is a very common bias affecting our judgement.

It is not the number of examples you can think up which dictates your judgement, but the ease with which you do so. Schwarz et al demonstrated this in an experiment in 1991.Some of the participants were asked to come up with 6 examples of when they had been assertive, and others were asked to come up with 12 examples. Those who only thought of 6 instances then considered themselves more assertive than those who thought of 12. This seems, at first, illogical, but is the availability heuristic at work.

Those who had to think of 12 examples struggled with the last few. It was difficult to come up with as many as they were asked for. This difficulty led them to believe that they were not assertive. Those who only had to think of a few examples found it quite easy, so they concluded that they were indeed assertive.

So your answer to whether you thought it likely a major storm would devastate an island is not so much an indication of your meteorological knowledge. It tells me more about your exposure to recent news outlets.

Find out more about the way the brain fools us in my book, Bias Beware, available here.

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If my articles interest you, you would really enjoy my book, Bias Beware, available here.