Brian Williams, Robert McDonald and now Bill O’Reilly. Nobody likes it when people play fast and loose with the truth, especially those who are specifically charged with telling it to us straight. Williams and McDonald have apologized, but O’Reilly is digging in on his version of a story Mother Jones broke about how things really went down while he was covering the Falklands war. Mother Jones says O’Reilly sensationalized and even fictionalized his dramatic stories of war zone coverage.
Maybe, maybe not. I wasn’t there so I really have no clue about the veracity of his tales from the front. And while I don’t know what’s fact or fiction, I did have a reflexive belief response to the accusations leveled by Mother Jones. But that response had less to do with whether or not I truly believe O’Reilly and more to do with beliefs I formed long ago about news organizations and which brand – FOX News or Mother Jones – is more likely to tell me the truth. My instinctive response to the report on O’Reilly is the result of confirmation bias, which is our stubborn propensity for filtering information in a way that confirms what we already believe.
Confirmation bias makes life easier. But, it’s also the reason it’s so darned difficult to change minds with advertising – or with any persuasive technique, really. Whether they’re the minds of our family, friends, customers or even our very own, we are loath to re-evaluate the things we believe. Re-thinking our most important beliefs is a painful process and most of us would rather avoid it no matter how open-minded think ourselves to be.
Beliefs are often born gently and held loosely in the beginning but are fortified and made stronger over time through the constant nourishment of confirmation bias. Unless something thoroughly disruptive comes along to challenge them, our beliefs won’t change. Ultimately, our beliefs serve as a shortcut for navigating the storm of information thrown at us each and every day. If we didn’t have the capacity for the kind of subconscious sorting that confirmation bias allows, the process of evaluation would stymie us every time something of importance was presented.
There’s an important lesson here for advertisers: a made up mind is a terrible thing to try to change. Your advertising is ineffective against the shield of confirmation bias. Don’t waste your money trying to convince people who won’t be convinced. People who are inclined to believe FOX News and O’Reilly will put no stock in the accusations of Mother Jones, and the converse is also true. A much better target for persuasive efforts is those whose minds are not made up and those who already lean our way. These are the fertile plains of conversion, and politicians harvest them more effectively than most. Their goals are always to solidify their base and grab share from the group of undecided, or swing voters. They know their efforts will have no meaningful effect on members of the opposite party.
When focusing on groups who haven’t made up their minds repetition is an important ally. That’s because another mental shortcut causes people to over-value the information they’ve received most recently. It’s a bias psychologists call the availability heuristic, and it predisposes us to believe the information we can recall most easily. People who don’t know who O’Reilly is and have little or no other information to go on will be more inclined to believe the reports about him, especially if they are repeated often enough. This is where the magic of reach and frequency play to messenger’s advantage, of course. The more frequent the message, the more likely we are to believe. When caught in the crosshairs of controversy, for example, many celebrities fuel the flames of their demise by feeding the news with more news. Charlie Sheen, anybody?
So, which brand stands for truth – FOX News or Mother Jones? Of course, the answer to that question depends on what you already believe.