Blog posts

Communication biases, why are they so common and how to (try) to avoid them?

Published on 10/01/2022

As consultants and experts in our field it is often our mission to highlight who is the exact target of one’s products and services. However, since we evolve in the same work environment as our colleagues or in the same city as our friends, how can we ensure to be the best judges and, in a position to fairly understand the target group?

« You’re not the target »

« Everyone has an iPhone. » Actually, Android represents 76.6% of the market share VS iOS with 23.4%.
« Taking your bike to go to work is the new normal. » 2% of people go to work by bike VS 75% driving a car.
« Traveling means flying. » 50% of flights are enjoyed by only 2% of people while 20% of the population have never taken a plane.

Representativeness bias can be the biggest threat to communication professionals. This bias forces anyone to think that their surroundings, their habits, their experience is common and represents most of the population who belong to the same age range, social category or location. It is a mental shortcut that consists in making a judgment based on a few elements that are not necessarily representative, but this is also something we all tend to do, more often than we think.

For example, because you’re vegan, go grocery shopping in sustainable supermarkets and have dinner with veggie and vegan friends in up-and-coming plant-based restaurants, it becomes more and more difficult to believe you are actually part of less than 2.2% of French people[2]. To you, eating meat every day seems outdated and feels irresponsible in the 21st century, while the reality is that 85% of the population feel reluctant to the idea of changing dietary habits and 74% of French people eat meat without trying to reduce their consumption…

The more homogeneous our personal relationships are the more we will be a victim of representativeness bias.

This is where social media comes in. A potential window to take the measure of other’s behaviors, connections, and concerns. Indeed what if social media could showcase the real representativeness that we look for as communication professionals – in order to better know who’s the exact target?

In essence, social media have helped with wider connections, opening up circles that one would not have access to in real life and allowing people to face opinions that did not exist in their close environment. The thing is, digital life is not a new concept anymore. We are building online communities that are aligned to our values, our consumption, our humor (etc.) just like we would on the outside. We engage with people who have the same interests and social characteristics as us which means that we recreate the same pattern than in our physical life.

Social networks as a reflect of an IRL phenomenon

Many voices tend to accuse algorithms of fabricating those interactions and manipulating us into liking and engaging with content based on interests and past experiences. Instead it looks a lot like a replica of what human beings already do IRL. Since the barrier between IRL and digital no longer stands, we must assume that cognitive biases which existed offline have developed online and that social media creates representativeness bias too.

We probably all maintain, despite ourselves and often without seeing it, many biased visions well implanted, as individuals or as entities. For instance, each year, generalist media highlight the ski season as a large French phenomenon, showcasing it as THE winter sport we all practice. In fact, only 8% of French people go skiing at least once every two years. The enthusiasm around it is a false belief when it hardly represents 10% of the population.

But we probably all just adjust to our biased representations and beliefs since we all take part in it – one way or another – and topics that in fact concern a minority tend to find resonance with a large audience. Did you say vicious circle?

One thing is for sure: in communications while you might not be the target, you are responsible for finding who really is.