Cognitive Capture

Today’s column by Gerald O’Driscoll in the Wall Street Journal reminded us of Willem Buiter’s memorable use of the term “cognitive capture” to describe why regulators failed to rein in Wall Street.  Buiter borrowed the term from psychology (also called “cognitive tunnelling”) where it describes the state in which one becomes so focused on one thing that one misses the whole picture.  It explains why cellphones distract people from the road even hands-free.  The cellphone conversation, as it were, has captured your cognition.

Buiter used the phrase to suggest that regulators were so captive to Wall Street’s self-image as indispensable to the world economy that they were literally unable to think creatively about reform.  We like the phrase because we think preventing cognitive capture in an organization is one of the key functions of corporate communications.  Cognitive capture is what happens in an organization when its leadership starts believing that because its operations “exceed federal safety standards” that these operations are actually safe.  Cognitive capture is also what is happening when management thinks that the company’s data mining practices are “designed to fully protect our customers’ data privacy.”  What has happened when a  retailer has a policy of hiring only attractive Caucasian store clerks and believes it is “enhancing the customer experience?”  You got it: cognitive capture.  The urge to believe that what benefits the company automatically benefits all its stakeholders is a powerful force to which every management team periodically succumbs.  One job of the communications counsel function is to gently but forcefully remind them that there are other narratives alive in the world outside that, if ignored or dismisssed, can have a profound impact on their business.

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