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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mental "Glitches" Are Slowing EV Sales (part 3 - Confirmation Bias)

Welcome to part 3. In this series we are looking at the cognitive biases and logical fallacies that all of us have and how these could be impacting the mass adoption of plug-in vehicles. We have looked at Cognitive Dissonance and Status Quo bias. In this post we'll be looking at Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation Bias

It's human nature to jump to conclusions. We "go with our gut" or "follow a feeling" and then we look for data that confirms where this jump landed us so we can then rejoice in how smart we were for knowing or deducing something from just a few clues. Our minds have great power to rationalize, in this case that power is put to work, not to question this conclusion, but to justify it. This is the confirmation bias and it is a shortcut to thinking. Like many of our mental glitches, it often serves us well. It allows for quick decisive action. It is those times where it does not serve us well that we must address.

Our natural tendency is to prove we are right, rather than critically dissect our assumptions. We save that for people that we don't agree with. Looking to prove ourselves right means that we search for confirming data and ignore everything else. In short, we cherry-pick data points. This is why you can have people on each side of an issue that are so sure that they are correct. Confirmation bias goes as far as to slant our perceptions of ambiguous data. This means that opposing side may be looking at the exact same data and both believe that it supports their side.

Pick a topic that is near and dear to you, a cherished belief, your favorite sports team... If you were to search for it on the Internet, you'll likely find many sites that agree with your sentiment. However, you'll likely find just as many sites that disagree with you. If you were to list these sites in two columns (agree and disagree), it is far more likely that you spend time visiting the sites in the agree column than the disagree column. And why not? These are the sites that "obviously know what they are talking about." A 2009 Ohio State study showed that we will spend 36% more time reading an essay that aligns with our opinions.

If you know, believe, or otherwise cling to an idea; you likely to hang out with other people (online or off) that feel the same way. This can all too easily create an echo chamber.

Echo chamber of the Internet

Within the echo chamber, there is no questioning whether this idea is correct. Such acts are shunned, criticisms are at best considered ignorant and at worst blasphemous.

Confirmation bias allows us to continue to believe something even when confronted with contrary evidence. Much like the status quo bias dismisses new alternatives without much consideration, the confirmation bias dismisses contrary evidence without due consideration.

Don't believe everything that you think.

To counteract this mental glitch, you will have to step outside of your comfort zone. You'll need to be willing to consider that some things that you currently believe may no longer be true and perhaps never were. If you can open your mind to this possibility, then you can begin to apply critical thinking and epistemology. You can examine what you know, how you came to this knowledge and determine if it holds up to scrutiny.

History is filled with things that were taught as fact and only later, in light of new information were they truly understood. Schools were established and volumes of tomes were written about the four humors and bloodletting, for example. The trailer for the book, You are Now Less Dumb, (which I highly recommend) explains this idea really well with a story about the "logical conclusion" that geese grow on trees and how it was believed and taught for 600 years. It illustrates that scrutinizing what we "know", the same way that we would scrutinize a statement contradictory to one we currently hold, is the best way to avoid getting caught in confirmation bias.

You are Now Less Dumb

Applying this to PEV Sales

The confirmation bias is one of the primary reasons that EV myths such as The long Tailpipe, or the inconvenients of recharge times, EM fields, fire danger, or range anxiety continue to linger long after exhaustive well-to-wheel and similar usage studies have been conducted. Cherry-picking data and anecdotal stories allows these myths to be repeated.

The fictional character Frank Underwood from House of Cards said "There’s no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth." I am going to disagree with Frank (and hope he does not push me in front of a train for it). The confirmation bias will allow this flood of naked truth to be ignored, discredited, and/or dismissed. In our case, I think the best way to overcome doubt is with a personal experience or "The Tesla Effect".

The Tesla Effect in physics is using induction to transmit information over great distances. Within the EV community it means something else. Put an EV-skeptic behind the wheel of a Tesla Roadster or Model S and let them experience the responsiveness, the power, the smooth acceleration. It feels like flying. This gives a new conclusion as their starting point.

Remember that the confirmation bias starts with a feeling, a conclusion, and then it puts our rational mind to work blustering it; seeking confirmation. "I like this, therefore it must be a good thing." This positive experience has a halo effect on all other aspects of the EV experience.

E.g., "EVs are just golf carts that take too long to charge," can turn into "I can rip down the road with no pollution and no gas bill. Who cares about recharge time. The car is sitting in the garage all night anyway."

This method is much simpler than asking someone to "study epistemology, reexamine all your assumptions, apply critical thinking, and then reason up from first principles." As rational as that request may sound, it is unreasonable and completely ignores the emotional core of our being that drives most of our decision making.

This is why it is important to get people behind the wheel of an EV. The EV grin really works. And it does not have to be a Tesla (although they are particularly persuasive). The Fiat 500e, Chevy Spark, smart electric drive, BMW i3, VW eGolf, Nissan Leaf, or the Chevy Volt are all great plug-in cars that are fun to drive. They all hop off the line quickly and have good 0-40 MPH times. There are many skeptics turned owners out there.