Ask the Board – May 26, 2020 | DR. ELIZABETH CORNELL


“How has psychology and understanding the human brain helped to inform your content approaches?”

We subconsciously use bias all the time to make choices and navigate information we are exposed to through other people and our environment. Broadly speaking, bias is a general pattern or a tendency to think in a certain way. No wonder marketers leverage bias: It’s a powerful way to reach people. One type of bias that marketers make the most of is cognitive (or psychological) bias, which is an involuntary pattern of thinking that produces distorted perceptions of people, surroundings, and situations. 

“Distorted” may suggest something negative, as if distorted perceptions can only be leveraged for selfish and exploitative ends. For example, some marketers use cognitive bias to manipulate people’s perceptions of themselves or a product so they will make a purchase or adopt a particular belief or behavior that profits someone else and may even have a negative impact on the consumer. The classic example of this is when cigarette manufacturers advertised the Marlboro Man commercials during The Flintstone’s cartoon. Who would you rather be, Fred Flintstone driving his car with wheels made of stone or the Marlboro Man, galloping around on his big steed?

But cognitive bias can also be used with positive intent. Most higher education institutions want to promote causes and beliefs that support their school populations and institution. As such, digital signage content can influence employee cognitive bias effectively and in positive ways to reach their community. Here are a few examples:

Bandwagon Effect: Use this bias when you want “people to adopt a certain behavior, style, or attitude because everyone else is doing it.” The behavior spreads when people see others adopting it. For example, are students reporting high levels of stress caused by lack of sleep? Campus health services might create a campaign with actual students boasting about how their commitment to sleeping more helped them improve their test scores. 

Confirmation Bias: Ever since schools started competing with each other in athletic events, the confirmation bias has been in play. Essentially this bias “favors information that confirms your previously existing beliefs.” At stadiums and parties, fans paint their faces with team colors and wear clothes with their team’s insignia. Such behavior exhibits their belief in the importance of team spirit and their team’s ability to play a good game, which serves to elevate the reputation of their institution. Digital signage content, promoting upcoming games, the athletes, and the social side of college athletics, reinforces (or confirms) these beliefs and associated behaviors. To be sure, it’s this activity that strengthens an individual’s sense of connection to the school, a feeling that the development office will capitalize on when students become alumni. Look for confirmation bias in materials sent to potential donors.

Unconscious Bias: This is one cognitive bias that’s in your best interest to become conscious of and avoid. Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorization.” If you’ve created content for digital signage, your unconscious bias may have slipped in without you noticing. For example, you need to promote library services, and you don’t have a suitable photo from the school library, so you turn to a service that provides stock images and select the following photo of young people in a library setting. Can you spot the stereotypes? 

Library pic for ATB 052620

A few stereotypes:

  • No evidence of computer equipment suggests the erroneous belief that technology does not have a place in libraries
  • Where are the ear buds? The absence of personal devices promotes a distorted image of the average student. In reality, devices are always around them. 
  • Where’s the conversation? While quiet study areas are still important, libraries offer collaborative environments that foster conversation–in person and online. 
  • The most important stereotype is the models in the photograph. They are all white. This is important because your school’s students–whether they’re sleep deprived, playing or attending a football game, visiting the library, or doing anything else–are most likely not all white. Your content should convey a true reflection of campus diversity, and it will, as long as you make it a point to vary the types of people who appear in your signage.

To avoid unconscious bias, ask yourself if your content consistently reinforces your beliefs and assumptions, or does it strive to cover different scenarios or angles? For example, if you had to use the picture above, make sure the next time you create content that it takes in a different aspect of the library’s services, student behavior, and demographics.

These are just three examples of cognitive bias. The links in this article will lead you to more examples and information. The more you know about bias, the more you can use it for the common good as well as to create effective digital signage content.


About Author

Director of Internal Communications
Fordham IT

End User Council

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