How to Recognize & Overcome Vividness Bias in the Workplace
There is a persistent bias called the vividness bias that affects a certain type of person. For a certain type of person, prestige is everything. Prestige can present in several different ways, but in Western culture, there are certain indicators that have embedded themselves in our collective consciousness. Think big house, nice car, and impressive job title and salary. But do those things truly lead to happiness? The answer is different for every individual, but a large number of people seem to value these signifiers and base a large part of their decision-making around attaining them. The question then becomes twofold, why do some people present with this tendency, and how do we deal with it in the workplace?
While a relatively new term, the concept of “vividness bias” encapsulates all that was just described and has managed to spark a surprising amount of debate for something that was first identified only a year or so ago. It was first mentioned in a blog post from the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation (HLSPN), which defined it as, “…the tendency to overweight the vivid and prestigious attributes of a decision, such as salary or an employer’s status, and underweight less impressive issues, such as location or rapport with colleagues.” While the overall concept is simple on its face, there’s a lot to unpack regarding its implications for anyone in the workforce. There is also a school of thought that altogether denies the existence of vividness bias and posits that the opposite is true. Essentially, we weigh “less impressive issues” higher, particularly as we gain experience. In this blog, we’ll look into whether or not vividness bias even exists and how it affects the workplace.
Does Vividness Bias Exist?
The idea of vividness bias first came to the authors of the HLSPN blog post in relation to an incident with a professional baseball player. He was choosing between two teams. One had the benefit of being able to offer a higher salary and more competitive playoff chances, while the other was in a smaller market and couldn’t afford to match the original team’s offer. Vividness bias would posit that the player would take the higher paying, more prestigious offer. But he actually ended up taking the lower-paying, less prestigious option. Why? Because of what many call soft factors. An easier commute from where his family made a home and a great, preexisting relationship with the team’s manager made the decision relatively easy. By providing such a high-profile counter-example in their article announcing the concept, it’s almost as if the HLSPN went out of its way to discredit the theory at the moment of its birth.
To be fair, the authors don’t make any claims that this is a universal concept, only a pervasive one. However, a study conducted by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Pomona College published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, concluded that the effect is actually illusory:
“…individuals are not typically influenced by what was believed by social researchers to be an influential biasing factor, the vividness of the presentation of a persuasive message. Beyond this, the present study suggests that social psychologists and marketing researchers are not alone in their misperception of the ordinary person’s susceptibility to vividness effects; naive perceivers share the same beliefs about their fellow person and, to some degree, themselves.”
It’s really an interesting conclusion when you think about it. Essentially, most of us perceive that vividness bias not only exists but is common. However, this thought, according to the study, is incorrect. While we do think most people have vividness bias (including ourselves to some degree), when it comes time for decision-making, most of us exhibit traits much more reminiscent of the baseball player in the HLSPN’s piece.
Now, to be sure, this contradicts not only what most lay people think, but also the prevailing wisdom amongst marketing and advertising professionals. So it’s essential to keep in mind that this is only one piece of the puzzle you should consider when making decisions that may be influenced by vividness bias.
How Does it Affect the Workplace?
The biggest time vividness bias rears its head in the workplace is when negotiating for both new hires and promotion-based offers. If you’re a prospective employee, this is the time to ensure that the goals for your next position are met before starting. This can include a variety of factors, both vivid and not. The key is to sit down with yourself and figure out what’s truly important to you. It might be that the vivid is what you desire, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. However, the softer factors, such as the makeup of your team, company culture, and proximity to home, are all things that should be considered. It’s important to note that the longer people are in the workforce, the less interested they tend to be in the more vivid and prestigious aspects of a role.
For employers, it’s all about knowing what’s most important to your target audience and catering to their needs while also seeking those that are a proper culture fit. While it can be tempting to throw money and titles at people and expect them to accept offers as vividness bias suggests, it may not be the proper course of action. Sure, many candidates would likely jump at the opportunity for more money and a better title, but those who are only focused on those signifiers may not be the best culture fits and might soon seek to leave the company. By encouraging a culture that values soft and vivid factors and hiring accordingly, you end up with a much more invested workforce who are better suited to life at your organization.
Clearly, there is conflicting information about the existence of vividness bias. While most classical models of behavior stress the vivid and prestigious (indeed, that’s what the HLSPN was building on in its article), some recent studies purport to show that while we think the vivid and prestigious will have a large degree of influence on our decisions and those of others, in reality, the softer factors most often play a larger role. And, if you believe the conclusion that more experienced workers tend to value softer factors at a much higher rate, it shows that the more you learn about work life in general, the more you realize the lower relative value of the vivid and prestigious. So, when you’re looking for your next role or beginning a search for your company, remember that while it can be tempting to lean toward higher salaries and more impressive job titles, in the end, there are other factors that will likely steer your happiness and the happiness of those at your organization in much more meaningful ways.
Chris Dyer is a company culture and leadership expert and CMO of PeopleG2, which has continuously been ranked as one of the best places to work. If you’re interested in learning about how Chris can help you identify and overcome vividness bias within your organization, reach out to get in contact today.