Articles d'opinion

Elementary my dear Wason

The bias analyzed

How much do you know about Africa? What are the first words that come to your mind when you think about Africa? Would you be ready to live, work, launch or expand a business in Africa?
study from McKinsey&Company for the Harvard Business Review Press illustrated that most businesspeople underestimate Africa’s potential and overestimate the challenges of doing business there.

Experiment : Reading the Newspaper
McKinsey Authors of the study explain that one possible cause of misperceptions about Africa is the type of stories that most/big medias share about the continent. Indeed, some journalists are biased in their reporting of Africa. Often, the western media fail to report the good stories that abound in the continent – instead, they concentrate on the “four or five” places that give Africa a bad name to the outside world. 
Let’s verify this point.
I tried with the NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, and BBC News. You can try with any non-African media you usually read. Here’s what I discovered :

Briter Bridges Innovation Map

Not surprisingly, more than 80% of the news were about « negative » events (wars, famine, corruption…). Very few shared « positive » outcomes (as new legislation favorable to entrepreneurs, startup launch, creation of free trade regions, business successes, sustainability initiatives,…).

Why is that – and what impact may it have on business?

Deep dive into Wason Selection Task
One of the first important commandements when you deal with data to make decisions is to make sure that the data you are collecting is representative. A good analysis depends on a good dataset, but having new data does not necessarily translate to good data. 
Let’s get back to the definition. Representativeness is a comparison of one’s data to the actual conditions under inspection. A representative sample is a group or set chosen from a larger statistical population that adequately replicates the larger group according to whatever characteristic or quality is under study. In our case, we want to see if our newspaper-extracted data is representative enough to reflect the real dynamics in Africa’s business environment.


Representativeness and confirmation bias
Just as reading 10 right(only) or left(only)- wing newspaper might not open your reflexion more than reading only one of them, reading only western newspaper might not be the best way to understand Africa.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that affirms one’s prior beliefs or hypotheses. People tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. 
Among the first to explore this phenomenon is Peter Cathcart Wason, who in 1960 presented his subjects with three figures (for example 2-4-6),  telling them that this triplet conformed to a particular rule. They were then asked to discover this rule by generating a new triplet and using the feedback they received from the experimenter. Each time the subject generated a triplet, the experimenter indicated whether the triplet conformed to the rule or not. Subjects were told that once they were sure that their hypothesis was correct, they should announce the rule. While the real rule was simply « any increasing sequence, » subjects seemed to have great difficulty guessing it, often announcing rules that were far more complex than the correct rule. Furthermore, the subjects only seemed to test the « positive » examples, that is to say the triplets which they considered to be in conformity with the rule and thus confirming their hypothesis. On the other hand, subjects rarely tried to refute their hypotheses by testing triplets which they assumed did not conform to their rule. Wason reported this phenomenon as confirmation bias, where subjects systematically seek confirmation rather than invalidation.

What should I do?
A good habit for your business activities is to search for potential data that are against your first opinion about something. Also, you may look for models, entrepreneurs that managed to succeed in the field that appear impossible at first glance. You can also ask for external point of view.
Here is an example : pick an activity that kept being done the same way for a long period of time (for example fundraising). Understand how you currently do it (which target, which methodology, what were the results before/what are the results now). Then try to figure out why you do it that way (« it has always been done like this », competitors do it the same way…). Brainstorm to list all the different actions/ways to do it (new target, innovative fundraising actions) and why you didn’t try them before. Look out for information about how this activity is done in another country/sector.

A new mental map of Africa
If we apply this methodology to Africa, we understand that things may not be exactly as what is said in western traditional medias.
Although these stories about disasters and corruption are accurate and important to share (to understand Africa’s geopolitics but also just to keep informed about the situation in the world), this coverage should not hide all the positive events and progress that is currently happening in Africa). To get the full picture, it is therefore important to draw a more accurate image of Africa :

  • With an annual growth rate sometimes exceeding 5%, most African countries have experienced sustained economic growth over the past 15 years (European Parliament 2016)
  • The African middle class already includes more than 340 million people and consumer spending will triple by 2040(African Development Bank 2016)
  • Africa’s leapfrog : the continent is immediately engaging in the most advanced technologies with products and services that are sometimes more sophisticated than those marketed in the West. (eg. in terms of bank payment)

Africa is the next big growth market, and some players already understood this : Africa escaped the global decline in foreign direct investment (FDI) as flows to the continent rose to US$46 billion in 2018, an increase of 11% on the previous year, according to UNCTAD’s World Investment Report 2019.

The last great emerging market is Africa. And digitization is creating opportunities not just to generate revenues but also to do good, impact positively and change millions of lives in the continent.

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