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The Cockatoo Effect

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Try this simple thought experiment. Imagine that you have suddenly developed some strange symptoms (may you always be healthy—this is just a thought experiment). You have a swollen left knee, accompanied by itchy toes and reddening of the right eye. Deeply worried and apprehensive, you visit your GP (General Practitioner).

The GP has been seeing a lot of patients with the exact same symptoms. He has no idea what the disease is, and has been prescribing different medicines to patients, just to test out by trial and error if any of those works. So when you visit him, he takes one look at you, notices your red right eye and asks, ”Do you also have a swollen left knee?” What would your reaction be?

In all probability, you would be taken aback by the accuracy of the doctor’s ‘guess’ (of course after checking whether there’s any way the swelling could be showing through your legwear), and you would nod a surprised “Yes”. “And do your toes itch?” he asks, with the tone of an expert. By now, you think he is superhuman. Chances are you would have total blind faith in him BECAUSE he has been able to ‘guess’ and narrate your exact condition. You are likely to blindly follow the GP’s prescribed line of treatment. In other words, because the GP knows your symptoms so well and has articulated them so accurately without you telling him, you have ASSUMED that his diagnosis is correct and the medication would work.

This seems like a deep-rooted cognitive bias. A cognitive bias of course is an involuntary pattern of thinking that prevents us from making rational judgments. Ever since the Psychologist duo of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced us to the idea of cognitive bias in the 1970’s, tens of biases have been listed. Some of these are quite popular (like the Confirmation Bias, Post-purchase Rationalization, Gambler’s Fallacy and Telescoping Bias, to name a few).


The talking cockatoo is one of the most impressive birds on our planet. Cockatoo and cognitive bias? No, I’m not digressing; please stay with me for a moment.  If you happen to “meet” a talking cockatoo, it’s hard not to get impressed. Its eyes exude a confidence rare in pet birds; the crest on its head sways majestically when it “talks”, adding to its aura. There are many species of talking birds, but cockatoos do the talking with a certain unmatched flair. If such a cockatoo were to say “Hello, how’s it going?” you would genuinely think, “What an intelligent bird” and then probably respond to the bird.

The truth, unfortunately, is that the bird is least interested in your day. It only knows that when it sees a stranger it has to utter a particular set of noises.

Our response to the talking cockatoo and our trust in the ability of the doctor in the thought experiment are somewhat similar—confident and accurate narration of our condition leading to an irrational belief in the narrator’s ability to manipulate the condition. That’s why I call this bias the Cockatoo Effect. In my limited and cursory study of cognitive biases, I have not come across this bias being listed anywhere.

Let’s dive deeper. If one looks carefully, there are two biases at work here.

The first one is the irrational belief in the diagnosis. So if the GP were to say that you have contracted the disease because of your frequent visits to supermarkets—a certain strain of bacteria that thrives on shopping cart handles has caused the infection—chances are you would immediately believe that, and might even completely switch to online shopping! What’s at work here could be called the Cockatoo Etiology Bias—an irrational belief that the cause of a certain condition is the one put forward by the person who narrates the condition accurately.

Once the cockatoo has convinced you about the reasons for your distress, it would proceed to hand you remedies. If the GP were to write expensive calcium pills and advise you to have those with boiled oranges, you would probably immediately buy the pills and oranges. This is the Cockatoo Solution Bias—an irrational belief that the remedy for a certain condition is the one put forward by the person who narrates the condition accurately.

Can these two biases operate independently? I would imagine they could. However, the mind is most effectively manipulated when they work together: Cockatoo Etiology Bias followed by Cockatoo Solution Bias.

The example of a GP has been used not because the cockatoo bias is prevalent more in the healthcare industry, but because it’s easy to relate to a conversation with the doctor. People all around us use the cockatoo bias all the time: in corporate corridors, in political speeches, in sales pitches, in Marketing campaigns, virtually wherever something is up for sale—whether it’s a product, service, person or idea. If anything, doctors are least likely to use it because their diagnosis is often based on the objective scientific method.

So whenever you see a diagnosis and solution being doled out based on loud, confident, repeated narration of your problems, you should reach out for your bias shield. Chances are a talking cockatoo is about to manipulate your mind.

Copyright © 2018 Subir Ghosh
Illustration by Ishan Ghosh

From Harmony to Cacophony

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A hundred musicians played together
Until an idea struck the bandleader
“What’s loud must be good, so let’s
Drop all except the trumpets”
And then the music was noise altogether

The Passage of Leadership

Six ships came upon a canal on a trip
“I ought to go first,” at once figured each ship
They shot like a crude arrow
But the canal was narrow
The wreckage was found soon, but no leader ship!

What are we ‘Managing’?

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To manage is to keep under control. Traffic signals, for instance, are good ‘Managers’. They keep the traffic flow under control. Organisations of today need much more than traffic signals. They need ‘Valuablers’–people who make ideas, actions, things and human beings more valuable. It’s time for ‘Managers’ to change. And everybody’s watching!

Corporate Daddy stumped

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“Controlling unruly people must be hard?”
Asked little Jigyasa, looking at her dad
The question baffled Daddy
Me? Control anybody?
“Why, it says ‘Manager’ on your business card”

The clever Chief Marketing Officer

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“Get new customers, give them a special price
Your old base won’t churn,” the CMO was wise
He got the shock of his life
When a note came from his wife–
“Sorry dear, I’ve found someone else–he’s so nice”

Organisations around people

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In the factory economy, each worker had a tightly-defined task: punch a hole every few seconds, pour coolant into the reservoir when it gets empty or feed coal to the boiler. When one worker left, the other filled his shoes and continued to punch holes or fill bins or feed coal to the boiler.

This is the ‘task view’ of organisations. It assumes (quite aptly for the factory economy) that an organisation needs to do repetitive tasks with reasonable efficiency in order to exist.

Things are obviously quite different in the knowledge economy. However, it is surprising that we often continue to act in the factory mode.

Take, for instance, the way we look for a ‘replacement’ when somebody vacates a position. We float the job description and a list of requisite skills (often mirroring the skills of the outgoing employee) to the recruitment team. The good folks at HR try to find candidates who fit our defined bill. And block out those who don’t.

There are many problems with this approach. While trying to find a replacement, we ensure that we do not stretch the boundaries. By trying to look for a replacement replica, we pass up the opportunity to explore new horizons.

The other way to look at an organisation is the ‘people view’. The view that an organisation is made up of unique individuals (including their skills, competencies, personality and potential) opens up myriad possibilities. When a building block falls away, you are not looking at replacing a brick with a brick. You are looking at exploring new possibilities. You are trying to unleash undiscovered potential. You are trying to go much beyond filling a gap. You are looking for a better way of doing things. Maybe you are looking at crossing over.

Measured Joy

The Ministry of Joy came under pressure
To spread, among people, delight and pleasure
It said, “The width of each smile
Must be ranked by percentile
Because you can’t manage what you don’t measure”

Nuclear fallacy

The nucleus bound the protons together
A baffled rookie proton asked another
“Wouldn’t it have been better
If instead of this fetter
We were not compelled to repel each other?”

Eat-it-or-lose-it Dinner

“This way to Dinner” I followed the arrow
“What you eat now is your quota for morrow”
I overloaded my plate
Till I was bursting, I ate
And trashed the leftovers without a sorrow