This is the title of a chapter in Ben Goldacre's excellent book 'Bad Science'. In it, he talks about inherent bias – the kind of false beliefs or 'cognitive illusions' that come from the shortcuts we use to simplify complex problems when we reason informally, and that can often mean (to paraphrase Ben):
1. We see patterns where there is only random noise
2. We see causal relationships where there are none
3. We overvalue confirmatory information for any given hypothesis
4. We seek out confirmatory information for any given hypothesis
5. Our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased by our previous beliefs
Another very real form of bias of-course, is the tendency we all have not to change our established behaviours unless there's an extremely compelling reason. Status Quo bias. Loss aversion means that our preference is to avoid losses rather than secure gains. Our tendency is to underestimate the advantages of the new, and overestimate the disadvantages of giving up the old.
"The industry's reaction to the realisation that people are ignoring their messaging is seemingly to search for an alternate way to control the message."
Commonplace thinking on the way that ideas and behaviours spread talks about 'influentials' – that elusive minority who can influence an exceptional number of other people and so are disproportionately more important to the formation of public opinion. This thinking persists, despite evidence to the contrary. Duncan Watts has shown that in a connected world large scale changes in public opinion, or 'cascades of influence', are typically not driven by influential individuals but rather by a critical mass of easily influenced individuals. Other research (using a dataset of over 250,000 Facebook pages and their associated fans, no less) has shown that the number of friends, user demographics or activity have no bearing on how ideas spread through social networks or how popular they are. Exposure on the other hand, does. As Mark says, its not about inflentials it's about emulation. And further studies have shown that time, differences between people, and relative context also play their part.
We simply don't know enough about this stuff. So the IPA's recent focus on behavioural economics makes sense, not least because (to quote Rory Sutherland):
"We spend almost all our time attempting to change behaviour through overt persuasion – while paying no attention to influencing the other, barely conscious ways in which people behave."
I believe that this has the potential to change the way in which we all work. But then I'm biased.