An Unfair Advantage

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An Unfair Advantage

I previous posts I argued that to succeed as a grant writer you must become a good storyteller, discover and structure your arguments effectively and be laser-focused on the one overarching idea that underpins your grant, etc. But even if you do all that, there will still be those grant hackers that will have an unfair advantage over you when it comes to presenting compelling proposals. Their unfair advantage is to be cognisant of the quirks of the human mind, how it operates, how it arrives at decisions and what influences those decisions. Sometimes, just being aware of some of the hard-coded cognitive biases of the human brain, can translate into more effective writing.

Specifically, a better understanding of how a reviewer’s brain will decide on our grants is useful. There is a very large body of knowledge on behavioural economics, social psychology, the neurological basis of attention and decision making, etc. But, I suggest, you should first study the international bestseller by the 2002 Economics Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. In his book, Kahneman describes in captivating details several decades of research in human decision making. He draws from a broad range of sources and covers multiple fields where humans make consequential decisions such as the army, venture capital companies, large services or production multinationals, surgeons, lawyers, academics, etc. For those of us who thought that H. Sapiens was a paragon of rationality, the book makes for hard reading. 

Decision-making can be easily influenced by the context, shape and form in which a call to action is presented to a person. By being aware of the “bugs” in the operating system of our brains and, indeed, in the brains of our reviewers’, we can take preventative action while grant hacking.

One important feature of humans decision making is called “priming”. We are prone to “priming” effects that can instantaneously and without conscious awareness affect what we think, feel or do and, usually, the three things combined; this is what -in the specialised literature- is called an associatively coherent response

Priming occurs when we see, hear or, more generally, perceive something, which in turn causes an association ripple in our brains that changes our behaviour without us knowing.  Via priming, tiny “levers” can lead to large effects that are beyond an individual’s conscious awareness, let alone control. By tiny levers, I mean subtle cues in the form of words, images, sounds, colours, etc. There is a vast amount of literature on the shape that priming may take but for our purposes, the important thing to understand is that we can choose to use priming to our advantage and built it into our grants. The alternative, namely ignoring it, is not an alternative at all: priming will still happen in the reviewer’s brain, but in that case, it will be outside your control and, hence, more likely to lead to an undesirable outcome for your grant.

By designing-in priming, we can make the readers of our grants more likely to have a positive feeling about our proposal from the very first impression.  And remember: “Academics are in the business of convincing people that our ideas are best”

This is important because we are dealing with a “feeling” rather than a “thought”, a more intuitive reaction to our grant than a detailed, dispassionate analysis entails -as desirable that would be. 

Another important aspect to remember about priming is that it is a split second effect: as a grant writer you do not have second chances to prime your reviewers to intuitively feel good about your grant, you need to get it right the first time around and you need to do it fast. There are many ways to channel the priming bug to your advantage when writing a grant. The fundamental observation in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that is relevant to us is that your reviewers’ brain, and more precisely their fast thinking systems (what Kahneman calls “System 1”), will autonomously respond to priming and provide an associatively coherent response to what you put in front of your reviewers. Moreover, this will take place regardless of whether the reviewer of your grant is an expert or is a generalist; regardless of whether he or she will dedicate a few minutes to review your grant or a few hours. That is, if the first time they set eyes on your documents -at a glance- they liked the catchy title, the clear and neat font style, the simple and compelling figure, etc., these cues will produce a feeling of well-being that will translate into positive thoughts about what they are about to read but, also, it will produce a pleasant physical subjective experience. Furthermore, as experiment after experiment has revealed, this pleasant physical experience will reinforce positive afterthoughts about what they are looking at. A very entertaining book, where you can learn more about putting into practice these and related concepts, is “#Hooked – why cute sells and other marketing magic that we just can’t resist” by Patrick Fagan.

The long and short of all this is that priming works. But priming works also in the opposite direction: if you misprime your reviewers, your grant will misfire! And this is why you cannot afford to ignore this human cognition quirk. By designing-in priming levers, you set the stage upon which to scaffold your grant. If the stage is wobbly, no matter how strong your scaffold is, it will still bring down the whole house.  

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

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