Are you biased? Good news: you can use it to your advantage.

In the 1970s, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated that we are not capable of objectively analyzing things in all situations. On the contrary, we make mistakes quite often! These two brilliant researchers played a decisive role in understanding our human cognitive functioning by introducing the notion of "systematic cognitive bias".

#What is cognitive bias?#

Between plane and train, which means of transport do you find the least risky? If you think it's the second, you take a mental shortcut: you use the few elements you have in mind (the latest accidents in the media, for example) and you judge that their frequency is representative (of the risk of crashing in a plane). This is the representativeness bias. In reality, the plane is statistically safer than the train....

Biases are"systematic deviations from logical thinking", in the sense that in some situations one does not really take the time (and resources) to think. These biases or mental shortcuts allow us to avoid cognitive overload, and to take action quickly. They influence our way of thinking and acting unconsciously. And it's the same for everyone because we (humans) are literally "wired" to function this way.

#Why is our operation biased?#

An explanatory hypothesis for this functioning is put forward by evolutionary theories. Our prehistoric ancestors had to face the dangerous context that surrounded them: nature in its wild state, abundant with constraints. In order to survive in different situations, speed of action was decisive: they had no time to weigh the pros and cons, and often acted according to their "instinct" (and past experiences).

Here's an example to make it clear: Imagine a prehistoric man in the wild, who has known for several days that a bear is prowling around looking for food (and of course he is afraid to meet it). Suddenly he sees a bush that moves slightly. In theory, it could be the bear chasing you or simply the effect of the wind in the leaves. In this situation, how will he act? He will certainly adopt a static behaviour, thinking that the bear is hiding in the grove (instead of weighing the pros and cons). In fact, he will use a confirmation bias by overestimating the probability that the movement is due to the presence of the bear and acting accordingly (rightly or wrongly, but quickly).

Humans would have "preserved" these instinctive mechanisms throughout history, since they ensured survival (in the previous example, it is better to be too careful than not careful enough!). These famous mechanisms (now called biases) would then have been transmitted in the genes through the sequence of generations... until our own.

As explained just before, we still use these shortcuts and other cognitive biases in our daily lives. However, today's (Western) world has evolved a lot: in everyday life, these mechanisms no longer serve directly to perpetuate the species, but to save our cognitive system, i.e. to avoid reasoning -more costly in energy- (rightly or wrongly!).

Let's say you have a meeting tomorrow at 7:00 p.m. with more than six people, on a subject that is ancillary to your main tasks. Obviously, you don't really want to go, thinking that your presence won't be useful, but you've been told that you're expected... You decide to go to the meeting. When you come out of it, you are likely to think that you were right and that your participation was not necessary. But maybe you were influenced by confirmation! Indeed, it is possible that during the whole meeting, you only considered information that confirmed what you already thought (i.e. that going to this meeting was a waste of time).

#The nudges rely on this biased functioning #

Fortunately, this inherited functioning alone does not constitute our system of thought: we are also capable of reasoning, understanding these cognitive distortions and even exploiting them! This is the idea of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who theorize "Nudge" as a gentle method to inspire the right decision. Nudge is a little nudge, which uses our cognitive biases to guide us towards "the best decision for us".

We have to admit that our actions are not necessarily in line with our intentions (especially when we have to make efforts). We are full of beautiful projects, good resolutions, motivations to change... and yet it is so difficult to take action for real! And it is not only a matter of will, since you know by now we are quite often influenced by our systematic cognitive biases (mostly unconsciously).

The nudges rely on this biased functioning. By slightly modifying an element of the context at a given moment, they help to adopt a certain behaviour. It should be kept in mind that the nudge is only an incentive, always optional insofar as the individual is never forced to act and necessarily " wins " (hence the name "nudge" ;-).

Here is an example from the current context: following VIDOC, many companies have set up a traffic direction on their premises with road markings (most often arrows). This system makes it possible to encourage travel in one direction rather than the other and meets the Nudge definition very well: the individual is oriented towards a behaviour that is favourable to him, and this at a lower cognitive cost (i.e. without having to think about the safest route).

Fifty's e-doing solution is also based on this behavioural science principle to support the development of employee skills. Fifty recommends personalised micro-actions to be carried out in the field and encourages employees to take action with relevant nudges. Stop talking. Start doing!

Ariely, D., & Jones, S. (2008). Predictably irrational. New York, NY: Harper Audio.

Kahneman, D. (2012). System 1/System 2: The two speeds of thought. Flammarion.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2017). Nudge: the soft way to inspire the right decision. Vuibert.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. science, 185(4157), 1124-1131.