Expert knowledge creates a gulf between you and your customers. Rich Bina, the VP and strategic planning director at ad agency RPA, explains how this bias works and what you can do to overcome it.

We tend to stereotype experts, who they are and what they look like, and that can get us into serious trouble. The biggest problem is that we don’t think of ourselves as experts. Often, we think of experts as an elite group of people with Ivy League doctorates. The truth, however, is that most of us are experts ourselves; the odds are good you’ve studied some discipline, industry, or subject more intensely, more deeply, or simply longer than everyone else. More than likely, it’s how you earn a living. That means you’re an expert, too, just like those with doctorates.

A warning: Your expertise can change you subconsciously. Your expertise can impair your ability to see how normal people experience the world, and it has serious implications for your business.

A study commissioned by Honda, via ad agency RPA and Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, used neuroscience research techniques to examine a group of experts, Honda automobile dealers in this case, and compared them to the relevant non-experts, their audience — people in the market for a new vehicle. Both groups were exposed to a variety of stimuli in a natural context: two half-hour sitcoms, out-of-category ads (Clorox, Jello-O, etc.), non-Honda automotive ads (Nissan, Ford, etc.), and Honda auto ads. We measured visual attention to see what people looked at, neuromeric responses to measure what they emotionally engaged with, and we asked questions to see what effect subconscious differences had on cognition. The results were predictable and stunning at the same time.

When the expertise wasn’t in play, the expert dealers and our normal shoppers responded the same way. When they watched programme content and non-auto advertising, their reactions, emotional engagement and visual attention were significantly correlated to normal shoppers. They reacted the same way. Interestingly, even when the groups watched non-Honda automotive ads, the expert dealers and normal shoppers reacted in a similar fashion.

But when they watched Honda-specific ads, the correlation went to zero; there was no similarity in how the expert dealers and normal shoppers viewed or emotionally responded to the Honda ads. In fact, the two were often at odds with each other.

When we looked at eye tracking, experts could be looking at the same screen but watching completely different elements, ignoring the story and characters, and instead paying attention to the car, information elements, and the deal. Emotional response followed a similar pattern, ignoring an appealing story, spiking instead on information. Expertise, being too close to something, can literally act like a set of blinders.

Since our brains use emotion to tag information for relevance, it’s unsurprising that experts and normal shoppers used different words to talk about the ads afterwards and had wildly different levels of recall.  Normal people talked about an ad as “cool” and “exciting”—the experts said it was “good” and “reliable.” Normal people had impressive levels of unaided recall, far higher than the experts recalling an ad for their own brand.

This should set off alarm bells for all of us. While our expertise can give us great insight and wisdom on a topic, we can get caught up in all sorts of details and information that matter to us and not to our customers, leading to poor decisions and missed opportunities. And because the effects are so powerful at the subconscious level, you’re likely to have no idea that it’s happening.

3 ways to manage expert blindness:

1. Biases can be controlled. We don’t have to be prisoners to our expert blindness. Research has consistently shown that making people aware of their biases is a powerful tool in mitigating their effects (Johns et al 2005). If you make the conscious mind aware of the foibles of the subconscious, the conscious mind can override them.

2. Expert blindness is personal. We are alike in that we are all experts, yet the biases of our expertise are incredibly varied. In the same organization, the strategist has a different set of biases than the technologist, the producer and so on. The only magic of using car dealers was getting a statistically valid group of experts with the same expert blindness.

Start with some introspection: What do you know you care about more than everyone else around you? When you hear a new idea, what are you consistently obsessing over? What’s your checklist when you hear a new idea? The answers can help give you an idea of what your biases might be.

3. Have a People-First reaction to new ideas. You’re still a normal person when you’re not an expert. The key is to learn tricks to let go of your expert biases and channel that normal person. Consider the meditation or mindfulness, which you may use in your personal life, as tools for the workplace enabling you to block out your expert concerns and have a normal People-First reaction. Is a new idea interesting? Was I intrigued? Did it tickle something in my brain? Why? Let the answers influence your decision making.

If you can make decisions that are better aligned with your customers, you’ll have greater business success. The challenge is to take the blinders off, take control, and see the world the way your customer does.

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