Bias Thursday – Pseudocertainty Effect
While I am not a psychologist, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that a good understanding of psychological issues is an important facet of a full security practice. These themed posts are likely to be incomplete, as I am just exploring some ideas and how they might apply to security.
In running through the List of Cognitive Biases on Wikipedia, I ran across the Pseudocertainty Effect. Simply put, this is the tendency of people to emphasize the positive over the negative when faced with a choice. The classic scenarios can be read at the Wikipedia link above and here.
Basically, this means that by phrasing a choice differently, you can guide people into making the choice you want them to. I’ve seen this used on the sales side of things, but I have to wonder whether it’s an intentional abuse of this tendency.
As I see it, this effect is useful to note in both offensive and defensive capacity. On the offensive side, if you’re needing someone to make a choice and you want them to take a risk, you emphasize the negative consequences, but if you want them to take a guaranteed path that may be incomplete, you emphasize the positive. For example, suppose you are pitching an idea to management. The idea has a 80% chance of success, but has a $10k cost. If you want them to accept your idea, you need to understand that the natural tendency would be to make the choice that preserves the certainty of saving $10k, rather than risking the 20% chance of failure. Thus, to be accepted, the proposal would need to either eliminate certainty altogether (perhaps tie the cost to averted loss offsets and phrase it as “between zero and $10k, depending on success”) or focus on the certainties of the results. Thus, if the 80% projected success rate can be broken down into one set of guaranteed successes and some that are maybe 40% likely, the proposal can focus on $10k for a guaranteed success with a bonus opportunity for further improvements.
On the defensive side, you should be aware that it is natural to think this way and that others will try to exploit your tendencies along these lines. Whenever you are presented with a choice (well, one that matters anyway) you should ask yourself whether it is phrased positively or negatively. Then, knowing that you have a tendency to preserve positive outcomes but take risks to avoid negatives ones, flip the phrasing around and see if the other choice makes sense. If you find that your choice flips with the phrasing, then this bias is in play and you need to think things through more carefully.