These three, data-informed findings can be particularly difficult to digest thanks to unintentional cognitive biases.
You may have heard the popular finding that 80% of Americans believe themselves to be superior drivers. But a majority of Americans cannot be above average drivers. After all, that’s not how averages work.
I often share data on the preferences, behaviors, and perceptions of millennials in presentations and workshops – particularly as they relate to visitor-serving organizations. As a millennial myself, I often poke loving fun at my generation in these conversations. During one share-out regarding working with millennials, I spoke to our generally outspoken nature and preference for horizontal structures. In doing so, I said the popular line, “On our sports teams growing up, we all got an MVP trophy.”
A fellow millennial in attendance came up to me afterward. She said, “On my sports teams, we did all get MVP trophies – but I was the actual MVP. I really was. Everyone knew it.”
Maybe she was. Or maybe it’s a cognitive bias.
As it turns out, it’s common to believe that we are personally above average at several things …when the chances are greater that this self-assessment is incorrect. This phenomenon is called illusory superiority and it creates a cognitive bias that causes us to believe that we represent “the exception” rather than “the rule.”
Cognitive biases are everywhere – and we bring them to work. A problem isn’t necessarily that we have these biases, but rather that we aren’t aware when these biases may be influencing our perceptions. Blind-spot bias is the failure to recognize our own cognitive biases!
Being human means having opposable thumbs, a capacity to love, and these 58 cognitive biases that basically screw up everything that we try to do.
Receiving inconvenient data about how a cultural organization is perceived or performing can be challenging. Indeed, it’s often the most beneficial data that is hardest to swallow. It’s the information that uncovers a blind spot, challenges assumptions, or shows metrics moving in the wrong direction that can open our eyes to the realities of the most effective and efficient path forward. It’s important information to see and assess in order to make strategic decisions… but if you’re an executive decision-maker who played a role in the outcome of that data, it’s not always fun to see.
I’ve found in my work with cultural executives that there are a few findings that cause leaders to nod in agreement when they are shared. Then state confidently, “Yes! That makes sense for the industry and general audiences. But I am confident that we are the exception to that finding. That’s not true for us.”
Maybe an organization is an exception. The odds are, of course, that it’s not an exception. It is the responsibility of a thoughtful leader to look into the extent to which an organization may or may not be an exception before declaring that they are not, “because I said so!”
(By the way, this particular cognitive bias is a variation of the ostrich effect.)
Here are three, data-informed findings wherein the vast majority of leaders with whom I have shared the data have insisted that they are the exception. In order to be a strategically managed cultural organization, it’s not enough to know how our audiences think and behave. We benefit by understanding how our own insider minds think and drive us to behave as well.
While these three biases are attached to specific examples in this article, they are generally prevalent within cultural organizations (and life in general). Cognitive biases can be fascinating and are important to consider, but I’ve chosen these three as they may play particularly strong roles in blocking or delaying industry evolution.
“Our free days attract more low-income visitors than paid admission days!”
Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or hypothesis. This is my favorite example of prevalent confirmation bias within the visitor-serving industry, and I reference this type of bias the most. Data suggest that broadly publicized reduced admission days result in attendees that are more educated and have higher household incomes than regular, full-price admission days.
IMPACTS collected data from 48 cultural organizations that have a regularly scheduled, free admission day and found that the average household income of those who visit cultural organizations on free days is $4,668 higher than the average household income on a paid admission day. Sound like an insignificant difference? Many organizations consider free days to be affordable access programs! The average level of education is also higher on free days than full admission days. Moreover, there are also more repeat visitors on free days, meaning that free days generally do not encourage visitation from new audiences, either.
“This is certainly not true for my organization! Whenever I attend our free days, I see tons of low income individuals!”
First: I haven’t noticed that these folks wear signs. Second: If you’re saying this, it may be confirmation bias at work. Confirmation bias – in this case – may make professionals think that their organization is exempt from this well-proven finding because they saw some people who looked “low income” on a free day when they were looking for people who looked a certain way. That same person may find a similar number of “low income” visitors on a regular admission day.
Embedded in this example of confirmation bias may be a more complex and dangerous bias of stereotyping.
When we believe that something is taking place, we often unknowingly seek out information that confirms our beliefs. Sometimes we see what we want to see.
However, the fact that broadly publicized free admission days do not attract lower income visitors shouldn’t be surprising at all! Organizations tend to use the same communication channels to publicize these free days as they do everything else (targeting a generally wealthier bunch), and who doesn’t love a deal? Moreover, the type of people who go to cultural organizations are the type of people who go to cultural organizations and being perceived as unwelcoming or unworthy of a person’s time are bigger barriers to visitation than cost.
“We are losing a lot of money from people pretending to be members!”
An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing cycle that explains the development of certain kinds of collective beliefs. Essentially, the more often we hear or say something, the more likely we are to believe that it is true – even if it is false. (This also ties to availability heuristics, or mental shortcuts that rely on immediate examples that come to mind, but that may not be contemplative of the whole story. Thanks to availability heuristics, we easily misjudge the frequency and magnitude of events.)
The thing is, even if insider professionals tell themselves over and over that something is true about market behaviors and perceptions, it doesn’t actually make it true. There are enough examples of this within our industry to fill an article on its own. (“If we build it, they will come” is an excellent movie quote, but tickets to cultural organizations are not generally bought. They are sold.) Here’s a one-department example that can impact an organization in the opposite way that is intended.
Ask a curator or performer about “membership fraud,” and you may get a shrug. Ask the membership director, however, and you may get an earful on a potential existential threat to an organization’s solvency that is being heroically averted on a daily basis. This makes sense! The membership folks constantly hear about – and “catch” – fake members trying to get in on someone else’s membership or guest pass. The threat is top-of-mind and, in many cases, is continually reinforced as a problem.
When we look at the math, however, training “membership police” may lose an organization more funds than those “lost” from membership fraud in the first place.
Checking IDs against membership cards is a top dissatisfier for premium members to cultural organizations ($250 memberships or greater). Let’s first acknowledge that organizations openly ask for an ID in addition to the membership card because they believe that their members – the backbone of their organization – might be conspiring to perpetrate a fraud against them. Sound harsh? It’s not entirely untrue. So if we’re going to “welcome” members by carrying out a top dissatisfier, it’s in our best interest to make sure that the gain is worth the gripe.
IMPACTS monitored 11 cultural organizations and we found that the membership fraud incident rate was 1.9%.
To find out how much money this amounts to for your organization, all that you need to do is plug in some numbers. As an (easy math) example, let’s assume that an organization receives 100,000 annual member visits and that the admission revenue per capita is $20. This would mean that member “fraud” poses a $38,000 annual risk to the organization (100,000 annual member visits x $20 admission per capita x 1.9% member fraud incident rate = $38,000 annual member fraud expectation).
(For easy math purposes, I chose a relatively large-sized organization for this hypothetical example. Extant data suggests that a visitor-serving cultural organization in the US with 100,000 member visits likely has a total annual attendance in the 400-500,000 range. The annual operating budget of this hypothetical organization is likely in the tens of millions of dollars – which may change the way you perceive that $38,000 if your organization is much smaller.)
If you could invest that same amount to eliminate a major dissatisfier for members and donors, would you? The answer is probably “yes.”
And what about guest pass fraud? How big of a problem are guest passes being put on Craigslist, for instance? Data suggest that guest pass fraud may be pre-paid. Here’s the math.
Does membership fraud impact your organization? Probably. Does it impact your organization significantly? Probably not. Remember: The worst thing about a visit to a cultural organization is rude staff, so it may be beneficial to reward staff for being informal learning cheerleaders rather than police officers. When it comes to things like membership fraud, it’s best to look into your data and let it do the talking instead of handing the microphone to availability hueristics.
“We’re valuing social media and web-based engagement enough.”
Conservatism bias is also known as belief revision, and it’s a big reason why wrapping our heads around new realities – like the connected nature of today’s world – can be so dang hard. This bias causes people to emphasize original, pre-existing information over new data. This can make decision-makers slow to react to new, critical information and place too much weight on past ideas.
Social media, web, and mobile web are the top information sources for likely visitors to cultural organizations. Not only that, data suggest that inactive, likely visitors (people with interest in visiting cultural organizations but who haven’t yet) are even more connected to the web than current visitors!
While it seems that many leaders generally recognize the importance of online engagement and the value of building a relevant reputation, data suggest that a major barrier to visitation is our industry’s inability to effectively alleviate perceived access barriers. The most pressing of which often involve offsite digital engagement such as having effective online ticketing or hiring more social media support.
We are used to a world in which organizations primarily spoke at audiences on traditional media platforms. Today, we have new platforms that necessitate that we speak with them. This change requires a bit of a mental shift, and – thanks in part to conservatism bias – mental shifts can be slow.
As if it weren’t enough on its own, shining a light on our own blind spots can be as challenging as digesting inconvenient data in the first place. And in that regard, becoming a data-informed cultural organization may be doubly difficult.
We’re all human. We all benefit from stepping back from time to time and considering why we think the way that we do and make the choices that we make – especially when the responsibility of running an organization that educates and inspires is in our hands!
The key to overcoming blind-spot bias is to shine a light in those places – and keep the flashlight handy.