The Cognitive Shortcut That Clouds Decision-Making

Merely repeating false claims increases their believability, leaving business leaders vulnerable to basing decisions on misinformation. Here are four strategies to prevent this.

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Meetings are as effective over Zoom as they are face-to-face. A four-day workweek makes employees more productive. Few complaints means customers are happy. Innovation requires disruption.

Business leaders regularly confront these and similar claims. But what makes people believe that they are true? And, more critically, how do such claims affect strategic decisions?

We live in a time of unprecedented access to information that’s available anytime and anywhere. Even when we don’t actively seek out opinions, reviews, and social media posts, we are constantly subjected to them. Simply processing all of this information is difficult enough, but there’s another, more serious problem: Not all of it is accurate, and some is outright false. Even more worrying is that when inaccurate or wrong information is repeated, an illusion of truth occurs: People believe repeated information to be true — even when it is not.

Misinformation and disinformation are hardly new. They arguably have been impairing decision-making for as long as organizations have existed. However, managers today contend with incorrect and unreliable information at an unparalleled scale. The problem is particularly acute for Big Tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter because of the broad societal effects of misinformation on the platforms. A recent study of the most-viewed YouTube videos on the COVID-19 pandemic found that 19 out of 69 contained nonfactual information, and the videos that included misinformation had been viewed more than 62 million times.1

In the world of corporate decision-making, the proliferation of misinformation hurts organizations in many ways, including public-relations spin, fake reviews, employee “bullshitting,” and rumormongering among current and future employees. Executives can find themselves on the receiving end of falsified data, facts, and figures — information too flawed to base critical decisions upon. Misinformation, regardless of whether it was mistakenly passed along or shared with ill intent, obstructs good decision-making.

All employees, from CEOs to front-line employees, consistently face the challenge of deciding whether a piece of information is true. This is not always an easy task — and it gets complicated by a strikingly banal but powerful bias in how we make sense of information. It’s a glitch of the human mind: We have a tendency to perceive repeated information as more believable than information we hear for the first time, regardless of whether the information is in fact true.

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References

1. H.O. Li, A. Bailey, D. Huynh, et al., “YouTube as a Source of Information on COVID-19: A Pandemic of Misinformation?” BMJ Global Health 5, no. 5 (May 2020): 1-6.

2. C. Unkelbach, A. Koch, R.R. Silva, et al., “Truth by Repetition: Explanations and Implications,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 28, no. 3 (June 2019): 247-253.

3. J. De keersmaecker, D. Dunning, G. Pennycook, et al., “Investigating the Robustness of the Illusory Truth Effect Across Individual Differences in Cognitive Ability, Need for Cognitive Closure, and Cognitive Style,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 46, no. 2 (February 2020): 204-215.

4. E. Pronin, D.Y. Lin, and L. Ross, “The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28, no. 3 (March 2002): 369-381.

5. L. Hong and S.E. Page, “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101, no. 46 (Nov. 16, 2004): 16385-16389.

6. L. Lu, Y.C. Yuan, and P.L. McLeod, “Twenty-Five Years of Hidden Profiles in Group Decision Making: A Meta-Analysis,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 16, no. 1 (February 2012): 54-75.

7. N.M. Brashier, E.D. Eliseev, and E.J. Marsh, “An Initial Accuracy Focus Prevents Illusory Truth,” Cognition 194 (January 2020): 1-6.

8. C. Unkelbach and F. Speckmann, “Mere Repetition Increases Belief in Factually True COVID-19-Related Information,” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 10, no. 2 (June 2021): 241-247.

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