Bikeshedding: A Cognitive Bias That Draws Our Attention to the Trivial

Year of production: 2023

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings who, when presented with enough information and time for contemplation, can make good choices and judgements. Well, ha-ha, the joke’s on us, because we are not. In this series of short articles about our beautiful and flawed brains – more specifically about cognitive biases – we will look at five common cognitive biases that directly connect to media and information literacies (MILs). The foundation of MILs is knowing oneself and others, and what better time to remind ourselves of our biases than at the brink of elections! So hopefully next time we find ourselves in the middle of a heated online debate about political views or simply as targets of political campaigns, we will know better than to let our brains hijack our judgement through these cognitive shifts.

Ever been a part of a group project where the whole kick-off meeting was spent arguing about THE BEST template for the final presentation or perhaps even discussing in-depth the size and font of the title? You may have fallen victim to the law of triviality or ‘bikeshedding’ – people tend to assign disproportionate weight to absolutely non-important, trivial questions and nuances and ignore or slip over the core of the issue.

Wait. What does it have to do with bike sheds?

The term ‘bikeshedding’ stems from an example the historian and public administration scholar Cyril Northcote Parkinson gave (already by the 1950s) to illustrate the traps we set ourselves in complex decision-making and organisational communication. In the story, a fictional committee is tasked with approving the plans for a nuclear power plant, a highly complex and technical project. However, the committee members spent the majority of their time and energy discussing and debating … the design and colour of the staff bicycle shed! The reason is very simple – the more straightforward and less complex a topic is, the easier it is for people to understand and have an opinion on it. This results in discussions becoming overly focused on the trivial at the expense of the important.

The law of triviality is familiar to many professions and fields – when a (larger) group of people start to hyperfocus on some tiny detail, the big picture becomes fuzzy and might end up as something else altogether. From IT to graphic design, from strategic planning to updating national school curricula, don’t even get me started on the climate crisis – there are bike sheds eeeeverywhere! In practical terms, recognising the bikeshedding effect can be essential in project management and decision-making processes, a good moderator or leader will not let the group get stuck on choosing the colour of the pens for the meeting.

Overanalysing the sportswear to avoid going to the gym

The law of triviality is also noticeable in our everyday lives, a much-practiced form of procrastination where we dwell on small decisions. Mulling over mayonnaise, ruminating about rakes, and contemplating corn cobs, instead of thinking long and hard about the big picture and huge decisions of our lives.

Sometimes, we spend more time compiling the day’s to-do list than the actual chores and duties. We give three hours to calligraphically painting the bullet point lists and might even add a bit of glitter and some stickers to it, only to find out that we only have a very limited time to get the things on our to-do list actually done. Boom! Bikeshedding.

Because our brains are drawn to smaller chunks and easier topics, we also often prefer these ‘superficial’ layers in our media habits too. We engage in bikeshedding when we are critiquing media (special effects vs societal implications) or conversing over social media trends (celebrity posts vs effect of celebrification).

A journalist or communication specialist can also fail at their job by narrowing the focus of the story or campaign to trivial and failing to grasp and tell the whole story. Discussions around media representation, such as the portrayal of gender, race, or sexuality in media, can sometimes become overly focused on individual casting choices or character design, rather than addressing systemic issues of representation and diversity. Media and information literacies are essential skills and knowledge that individuals need to effectively navigate and critically engage with the vast amount of information and media they encounter in today’s digital age. Knowledge about the digital environments, the architecture of platforms, social norms, media genres, etc., is increasingly important. But the foundation of media and information literacy is self-awareness and the ability to analyse others too – understanding how our brains and perceptions work. Otherwise, these flaws can be used to make us scared and confused and thus, easily mouldable.

Authors

Picture of Maria Murumaa-Mengel
Maria Murumaa-Mengel, PhD

Maria Murumaa-Mengel (PhD in Media and Communication) is currently working as an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu, and as a member of the Baltic Engagement Centre for Combating Information Disorders. She is involved in research primarily focusing on young people’s use (and non-use, ‘going off the grid’) of social media, different literacies (e.g. digital, MIL, social media, porn), and various online risks (e.g. gendered online hate, online shaming, online child sexual abuse and grooming). Maria Murumaa-Mengel’s main strengths lie in teaching and supervising – she is the recipient of the 2020 Estonian National Award for the Teacher of the Year and has supervised several award-winning theses. In regard to digital media literacies, she is a firm believer in the ‘know thyself’ ground rule – it all starts with knowing how we as people process information in the increasingly mediatised and datafied world.

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