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Cognitive Bias and the News

Simon Pitt | News | Sunday 11th November 2012

I've noticed something recently.

Often, when things go well, it is more by chance than judgement. And similarly, when things go badly, bad luck plays a much bigger part than ability.

There are, I think, two cognitive biases at play here: hindsight bias and the illusion of control. Hindsight bias is viewing events that have already occurred as more predictable than they were before they took place. The most recent American Election is a good example of this. Nate Silver predicted the correct results for every state before the election. And commentators now are commenting that Obama was always going to win.

But let's not remember that just a few days earlier, a number of other polls were predicting a Romney win, a close tie or that it could go either way. It's actually the same as the trick Derren Brown uses in The System to predict the horse results.
He had started by contacting 7,776 people and split them into six groups, giving each group a different horse. As each race had taken place 5/6 of the people had lost and were dropped from the system. Brown had a different person backing each horse in each race, and one individual, Khadisha, won five times in a row. This was similar to the coin flipping earlier: rather than having a predictive technique, Brown had tossed a coin repeatedly until ten heads had come up in a row, taking over nine hours to produce the required film.
I'm noticing this more and more in the media. Most recently with old George Entwistle, the newest former Director General of the BBC.

Talking to John Humphreys on the Today Programme, in an interview that some people say cost him his job, Humphreys challenged Entwistle:
And once again we are shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Why didn't you ask those questions before the film went out?
Now, whether or not you think the Director General of the BBC should micromanage every piece of journalism, there is a hindsight bias here. Information wasn't available at the time, but is now. What's also interesting is the misrepresentation of the past. When sitting down and looking at one news report, it's easy to spot mistakes, but the BBC doesn't just output one news report a day. It outputs hundreds if not thousands. Many of which will be escalated to lawyers and senior editorial figures.

George Entwistle surrounded by Press

The illusion of control, I think, is a more depressing cognitive bias. I was involved in a project recently, that had the best IT Project Manager and Business Analyst I have ever come across. The Project Manager knew everything about the project. Every meeting he came to, he was well prepared, was able to answer every question thrown at him, and give additional information. The Business Analyst was across all of the data, always had it to his fingertips and was always prepared. It was the project dream team. However, when the project went live it was a disaster. It caused more problems than any other project than I've known.

Usually, when faced with a poor project, I'd blame the project management, but I know from experience that I couldn't have wished for a better project manager. He did everything right. We were just unlucky.
One of the tragedies is that he wanted to do all the right things in terms of the management of the BBC and what undermined him were exactly the failings he was trying to address.
Chris Patton's comments about George Entwistle paint a similar story. Entwistle was a good Director General. He wanted to do all of the right things.

Chris Patton on Andrew Marr

Entwistle took an evidence-based approach to dealing with the situations - much to the confusion of the House of Common's select committee. Presumably because that wasn't something with which they were familiar.
It was difficult, evidence-based work, but I was determined, having published what I now know to be one inaccurate account of what had happened, that we should not do that again. It had to be right.
Ben Bradshaw, however, things slightly differently:
Is not the most important job of a senior manager and of a Director-General, when a crisis hits the BBC like this, to establish the facts as quickly as possible
He seems to think that getting the answer quickly is better than getting the correct answer. Which probably says more about the government than it does about the BBC.

And maybe this was the problem with George Entwistle. He did the right thing. He applied logic, intelligence and diligence to a world where what we actually want is bluster, image and spin. He lacked sloping shoulders. He took responsibility for things that weren't his fault.

The tabloids seem to have been watching a different set of speeches to me. The coverage has been personal and at times idiotic. I don't even really understand The Sun's front page today:

The Sun has a go at George Entwistle

The tabloids have targeted someone who wasn't an overpaid, out of touch, pen-pushing bureaucrat and hounded him. Entwistle had been director of Vision for less than a year. He earned half of what Mark Thompson earned. He even lives in a terraced house. He doesn't have a service company to avoid tax. He doesn't have off shore savings accounts. Well done dead-tress journalism: because of you, we're now going to have a renewed focus on spin, presentation and appearance.

Chris Patton says of Entwistle:
He is a very, very good man - cerebral, decent, honourable, brave. And I'm afraid this would have overwhelmed a lot of people with those sorts of skills.
Luckily, the BBC has on hand someone who isn't hampered by any of those skills. Step forward Tim Davie, Director of Audio and Music and the man behind the Pepsi Blue campaign. Remember that? No, me neither.

Tim Davie is a surprising choice to many, but actually, and maybe there is a cognitive bias at play here, it's difficult to see who else it could have gone to. Three years ago I wrote an analysis of the senior management at the BBC. Since then, things have changed Only Lucy Adams, Tim Davie and Zarin Patel remain, and Zarin has announced that she will be leaving in a year's time and Tim was scheduled to move over to BBC Worldwide.

One thing George Entwistle had achieved was reducing the size of the BBC Executive board, so there was only a choice of six: Thank goodness for Tim Davie.

And so the hunt for a new director general beings again, with Thomson without a P back as the favourite. Some will be thinking that had she got the post in the first place, many of these problems would have been avoided, but that too, of course, is just another cognitive bias.



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