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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