Repetition is important to leadership because of cognitive bias

Cognitive biases are a great tool for understanding human behaviour, particularly our more irrational behaviours, and although the meme is in danger of getting overdone I continue to find new value in the concept.

Today it is in the bias ‘cognitive ease’ and how it explains why repetition is important for leadership. Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE in the 1980s and 1990s is famously a big advocate of repeating key messages. In an interview with Alastair Campbell he said “You have to talk about vision constantly, basically to the point of gagging. There were times I talked about the company’s direction so many times in one day that I was completely sick of hearing it myself.”.

Aside from the observation that effective constant repetition is a rare talent (although learnable) the interesting question here is ‘why is it so important?’.

I had assumed that repetition works because it cements memories. The more times someone hears something the more likely they are to remember it and the more likely it is to subconsciously help with decision making.

I’m sure that’s true, but there’s something else too, and that is the concept of ‘cognitive ease’. We are drawn towards and believe more in things that are more familiar because they are less taxing on the mind. Conversely we shy away from that which is hard to understand.

Strategies which are constantly repeated become more familiar and hence more believed and accepted.

  • Nathan Schor

    Perhaps unintended, there’s a meta level to this post being a useful reminder about the benefits of repetition.

    The bias toward ‘cognitive ease’ which accounts for the benefits of repetition is one of several built-in inclinations discussed in Kahneman’s book – ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (which you’re mentioned in previous posts).

    I’ve held a series of classes in Silicon Valley
    based on his work as well as others who’ve been responsible for a series of findings coming out of neural science labs, many of them highly applicable to the sales/marketing challenges founders face.

    The timing is perfect for taking a scientific approach to influencing others, since more has been discovered about the brain that in all of previous history.

    For example, your point about repetition working well because it supports ‘cognitive ease’, and thereby is ‘less taxing on the mind’ can be amplified further by asking why lessening cognitive load matters in the functioning of the brain.

    And here the ‘Physics of Persuasion’ provides a crisp answer: Weighing a mere 3 lbs, the brain accounts for only 2% of the body’s mass, but it uses 25% of the energy. Since a big brain is a big drain, evolution dictates the brain become an energy miser.

    Nathan Schor | 305.632.1368 | [email protected]

  • Thanks Nathan. The meta level was unintended. But I like it!