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People mostly hear what they want to hear. That’s not a communications myth. It’s our tendency – our confirmation bias – that allows us to find information that reconfirms our existing opinions, beliefs and ideas.

For communicators, especially in this age of instant rather than delayed information gratification, this personal filtering can prove an interesting challenge.

In ‘ye olden days’ an opinion took its time to travel through phone lines to friends, the media, and conversations with respected peers at the water cooler. And communicators could carefully craft a TVC and supporting campaign to contradict or calm as necessary. Now a mistruth, misrepresentation, misunderstanding or mistake travels the spectrum of your social network, and its rippled ramifications, in seconds.

Our bias is showing our likes – and potentially our lack of imagination or willingness to stand out from the crowd in support of a contradictory opinion.

In Cass Sunstein’s article How Facebook Makes Us Dumber, she reports on a study that found social media likes are more than just a thumbs up to passing interests.

“Facebook users tended to choose and share stories containing messages they accept, and to neglect those they reject. If a story fits with what people already believe, they are far more likely to be interested in it and thus to spread it.” Our online socialising is making it easier for us to spread our ‘likes’ — even when they are incorrect.

Sunstein reflects on what can happen when previously privately-held views and values are made public, and amplified through the speaker of social media.

“Arriving at these judgments on your own, you might well hold them tentatively and with a fair degree of humility. But after you learn that a lot of people agree with you, you are likely to end up with much greater certainty — and perhaps real disdain for people who do not see things as you do.”

So if other people think like I do, then what I think must be okay and/or true. And I don’t have to go any further to find out. Which explains a lot about politics.

But there is good news.

You can use this bias to good effect for those of a similar mindset. One good deed can lead to another. It may be you recycle because you care about the environment, or because your council only provides you with a small rubbish bin. Either way, you’re recycling.  Information delivered in your personal language and values (eg, green, financial savings, lighter bins) may convince you to continue on this path in other areas such as composting, taking reusable bags to the supermarket or even just simply looking at the kinds of things you are putting in your bin (eg, how many pizza boxes this week???).

And at least one third some of us are still exercising our ‘tell me more’ muscles in an attempt to round out our opinions. We want to know if what we see is true. Or too good to be. Politicians, house hunters, and communicators in general fit into this category – the sceptics and those who want to know more about the other point of view in order to make better sense and understanding of their own lines. And in order to not buy a house full of termites.

However, awareness of the bias is not enough to counteract its effects. Consider this example reported in The Conversation about a study into the health benefits of chocolate – and its wide coverage.  As communicators, we know to research thoroughly. But we also want chocolate to be healthy. And…click bait!

As studies have shown, we all want to be validated, have our opinions and values supported – even at the expense of being correct. Take climate sceptics. You can’t trust researchers and studies indicating global warming – but you can trust researchers and studies indicating that you can’t trust researchers and studies (and of course, you can trust researchers and studies that report on the unlikelihood of global warming).

So it comes down to finding the common ground. Even when we see it as green and others see it as an exercise in futility in order to appease environmental groups. As sustainability communicators, if we can find a way to connect by framing and reframing our audience’s experiences and values we may be able to help move them, drive them, or at least be open to learning or trying something new.

What are the top myths and misunderstandings that you face in your organisation right now? And how can we create the messages that confirm the right way forward?

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