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Marketers vs cognitive bias: Confirmation bias vs marketing tech

Here at B2B Marketing, we’ve recently been talking about marking tech, with a focus on marketing automation. The...

Here at B2B Marketing, we’ve recently been talking about marking tech, with a focus on marketing automation. The surprise was how many companies knew they weren’t getting the most out of it, and yet were still looking to invest.

I might be the only person who read these statistics and immediately thought of notable Physicist and bongo player Richard Feynman, and pre-scientific tribes in places like Papa new Guinea.

What on earth am I on about? Cargo Cults.

As Feynman once explained:

“In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways [...] and they wait for the airplanes to land.

“They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.”


Because these cults didn’t understand the true nature of events, they replicated the efforts of others with no chance of a similar reward. The lack of understanding between correlation and causation meant a huge waste of their valuable time and resources.

So my question is a simple one: how many marketers out there are guilty of cargo cult marketing? How many copy other businesses, by buying the same tech, or using the same process, but aren’t getting the same results?

Feynman saw this phenomenon in science, and implored people to truly understand the scientific method so that they wouldn’t be conned by snake oil salesmen. We marketers must do the same. It’s vital that we begin with a true understanding of the unique conditions within which we operate, and apply scientific rigour so that we truly understand why we start a campaign, work in a new channel, or invest in new technology.

In particular, we must be wary of confirmation bias, defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses”. The best way to combat this is through the scientific method. However that can be long, laborious and tough to follow in marketing, where nothing works in a vacuum. Instead, of focusing on falsification when you have ideas, or new propositions or technologies in front of you – try everything you can to prove yourself wrong. If you can’t, then you’re on to a winner.

However, there’s always a chance that I’m simply seeing what I want to see and blindly following those before me...