Disconfirmations, Framing & Satisficing

I saw a story recently on why New England Patriots head football coach Bill Belichick has been so successful for so long in such an ultra-competitive league as the NFL where coaches typically have a short shelf life.

Belichick was described as a huge fan of Charlie Munger’s ideas on the power of inversion. Instead of looking for ways to win the game he tries to figure out how not to lose. This is a subtle distinction, yet it can be a useful way to find success. Negative knowledge is a highly overlooked aspect of making better decisions.

Robert Cialdini explains in his new book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade:

In deciding whether a possibility is correct, people typically look for hits rather than misses; for confirmations of the idea rather than for disconfirmations. It is easier to register the presence of something than its absence.

Cialdini cites how this line of thinking can actually influence how you feel about your own level of happiness. A group of Canadians were asked if they were happy or unhappy in their social lives. People who were asked if they were unhappy — and thus looked for confirmation of that unhappiness — were 375% more likely to declare themselves unhappy as those who were asked if they were happy. The framing of the question changed how people looked at their own lives.

This same idea can also be used increase the likelihood that people will help you when asked. Another study looked at a clipboard-carrying researcher who was trying to get people to talk to them at a shopping mall. When simply approaching people, just 29% of those who were asked to participate in a study agreed. In the next round they changed their opening line to include, “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” Of course, almost everyone answered yes, leading to a consent rate of almost 80%.

Getting people in the right frame of mind through some minor upfront nudges can also work when trying to sell products on the Internet. A furniture company was having trouble showing that their high quality sofas deserved a higher price tag than their competitors’ more low quality, low cost sofas. So they did a study where they placed fluffy clouds in the background of their website’s landing page to imply how comfortable their couches were. Site visitors placed a higher level of importance on comfort in this case when asked what they were looking for in a sofa and preferred the more comfortable (and higher priced) model than those who didn’t see the clouds.

The amount of data available at our fingertips presents a double-edged sword when trying to make rational decisions. On the one hand, it seems that we have a near endless supply of choices these days in terms of products, brands and information. On the other hand, more choices can lead to paralysis by analysis and actually make our lives harder when we can’t weave our way through the increased complexity involved in any number of decisions.

This can lead even highly placed decision-makers such as corporate executives into taking shortcuts when making big decisions. Since difficult decisions tends to take time and effort, leading to decision fatigue, people often abbreviate the process by taking the first option that sounds reasonable. Cialdini explains what this is called:

This tendency has a quirky name, “satisficing”— a term coined by economist and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon— to serve as a blend of the words satisfy and suffice. The combination reflects two simultaneous goals of a chooser when facing a decision— to make it good and to make it gone— which, according to Simon, usually means making it good enough. Although in an ideal world one would work and wait until the optimal solution emerged, in the real world of mental overload, limited resources, and deadlines, satisficing is the norm.

To bring this whole thing full circle and back to the Belichick gameplan, Cialdini says it’s important for people and organizations to think less about what could go right and more about what could go wrong:

In the excitement of a looming opportunity, decision makers are infamous for concentrating on what a strategy could do for them if it succeeded and not enough, or at all, on what it could do to them if it failed. To combat this potentially ruinous overoptimism, time needs to be devoted, systematically, to addressing a pair of questions that often don’t arise by themselves: “What future events could make this plan go wrong?” and “What would happen to us if it did go wrong?”

I’m constantly fascinated by the decision-making process because that’s what really separates successful firms from unsuccessful firms, successful investors from unsuccessful investors and potentially happy people from unhappy people.

A few thoughts based on Cialdini’s latest book:

  • Avoiding mistakes is often more important than seeking brilliance.
  • Framing can influence your thought process in both positive or negative ways.
  • There are subtle ways in which you can be persuaded to make decisions that you may not be aware of.
  • Before the persuasion even begins there are triggers that can cause us to lean in a certain direction in terms of how we view certain decisions.
  • In increased awareness of these techniques can help you avoid mistakes and also increase your ability to persuade others.


Further Reading:
Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Influences & Persuasion


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