How Media Shapes Consumer Perception

The Texas Sharpshooter fallacy I first read about in You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. It tells the joke of a sharpshooter that shoots a couple of holes into a barn, finds some holes close to each other and then draws a bull’s eye around it. I do not know of a better example of how to explain the tendency we have to see ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ in reverse order. The shooter didn’t draw the bull’s eye and then shoot into the bull’s eye, but instead did it the other way around.

Just yesterday I saw an example of this on news channel CNN. It was a story about the scandals that have plagued sport in recent months, referring to the alleged FIFA corruption scandal and the Russian doping allegations. Apart from appearing close to each other in time and both part of the sport industry, the two event have more or less nothing in common with each other.

This tendency to connect events together in time or place after the fact also has another knock-on effect…

This tendency to connect events together in time or place after the fact also has another knock-on effect on how we perceive the world: the availability heuristic. Because you have just seen the two events connected to each other in time or place, it is now more available to think about (compared to other events) and hence create the perception in your mind that (in this example) doping in sport is more prevalent than it really is. The times where two holes (events) in a barn could not be connected together is simply not reported about.

This has implications for reputation management in organisations. Just as there was no possible link between Russian doping in athletics and corruption in soccer but was connected together by mutual ‘scandals’ and ‘sport’, a company that has had an untainted reputation for years, might be in the firing line when two of its competitors have done something wrong.  Consumers might label a whole category of products as better or worse depending on recent events in the media or experiences with similar products. For research, a knowledge of these past experiences can play a big difference in making accurate inferences.


Leave a Reply