Let’s be friends with subjectivity and bias

A slightly older lady I had never seen before approached my desk.

“Are you Dan?” she asked. I decided it was best to admit that I was. I like a prank as much as the next person, but there was work to do.

“It’s about this email,” she explained, clutching a piece of paper. This could be trouble – I mean, who prints off an email for good reasons?

“I’ve printed it out, and it doesn’t look right,” okay, let’s take a look then.

But first, some context.

This was one of my early marketing jobs. I ran the global email marketing for an educational publisher. My main jobs were:

  • Coordinating the sending calendar to stop any particular country’s subscribers being spammed to within an inch of their lives,
  • Training people on email best practices to stop people getting spammed to within an inch of their lives, and,
  • Hand coding some absolutely lovely HTML emails.

I used to take great pride in hand building them from scratch – they were lean and mean. Every single one was on brand, and mobile responsive. They looked great on a phone, a tablet, or –  would you believe a thing still exists – an actual proper computer. However, there was one form factor I wasn’t accounting for properly – and here it was in the hands of a senior member of the publishing team. Someone for whom the way things looked on paper was very much part of the day job.

“It looks really odd when you print it out. I suppose most people probably won’t print it out, but still.”

‘But still’ nothing my new found friend. You’ve hit the nail on the head there – this is not an email designed for people to print out and go flashing around the office. I just want people to click on the quite lovingly crafted CTA at the bottom of the email. In fact, I had access to the stats and all the best practice advice. People didn’t print off the emails we sent them, and quite a lot of them didn’t even read them.

“Could you fix it before it goes out?”

Well, I’ll tell you what, I will. Because you’re right.

You have a bias towards a particular medium, and you’re probably not the only one. And I have a bias towards thinking older people are out of touch with technology. We all have biases we’re struggling with all the time.


Wikipedia’s List of cognitive biases contains 194 entries. Have a read through them if you have a moment – I bet you can recognise some of your past behaviour in them. I certainly do.

The world is incredibly complex – there is information and stimuli everywhere. Some estimates say our brains process over 10 million bits of information a second, but we can only consciously process 20 – 40 bits. That leaves our brains to do a lot of unconscious work with the rest of the data. As a result, we have a tendency to rely on short-cuts. Some of these short-cuts are helpful – we have them to help us avoid danger and minimise risk. But others can cause us to jump to conclusions and make bad calls.

We all have biases – every single one of us. One of my favourite things is when someone tries really hard to convince me they don’t.

“I’m the only one who’s capable of making an unbiased decision, I’m completely rational.”

Of course you are, you poor misguided fool. Now tell me, why is it every time you say that you’re backing your idea over any others? Seems unlikely you can always be right, doesn’t it? What about the law of averages?

We’re all more likely to believe individual examples and vivid anecdotes – believable stories that go along with our world view – rather than statistical and general evidence if it doesn’t.

Several factors influence decision-making including past experience, cognitive biases, age and individual differences, belief in personal relevance, and an escalation of commitment. They are different in each person you meet. People are individuals, which individual experiences – and even if people have shared an experience what they take from it can vary from person to person.

Yes, some of these more negative biases are definitely to be discouraged – as they lead to discrimination. But a bias comes from somewhere – trying to understand where a person’s bias comes from is a key part of being empathetic. If we’re to have useful discussions about progress, we need serious engagement with people who see the world differently — and the courage to challenge our own biases and those of the tribe we identify with.

So the next time you find yourself in disagreement with someone, or planning a campaign for a defined audience, try and see things from their point of view. Consider it for a while.

And never judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Because then you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes.


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