Christopher Graves ’77

Year of Graduation: 
Chris Graves

"Now, anyone, anywhere, can post anything online and call it news."

“We are living in a societal Sharknado,” quips Chris Graves ’77; P’13, the longtime television news producer cum public relations executive cum behavioral science devotee. Graves, the founder and president of the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science, an offshoot of renowned advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, is referring not only to the current state of American politics, but, more broadly, to what he sees as a “death of expertise” wrought by our national abandonment of the scientific method and critical thinking.

In modern parlance, Graves is a “thought leader,” a polymath who draws connections across seemingly unrelated ideas and fields and talks a mile a minute as he tries to explicate them. He is also uncommonly down-to-earth and self-deprecating, which may have something to do with his roots. “I grew up the youngest of five children in an extremely low-income housing project in Norfolk, Virginia,” Graves explains. “My mother was a nurse and my father didn’t work. We were just trying hard each month to make our rent of $65, and sometimes that didn’t happen.”

Graves got his first boost from his third-grade public school teacher who, recognizing the boy’s nascent talents, told him about a local private day school called Norfolk Academy. Graves applied and was admitted, attending from fifth through ninth grades on a scholarship created especially for him. When it came time to complete high school, he got his second break, this time from his parents; as native New Englanders, they were familiar with Northeastern prep schools and eager for their son to get a leg up. Graves was accepted to Andover and Exeter, and opted to attend the latter on full scholarship after an inspiring conversation about archaeology with his PEA admissions counselor.

From the Academy, Graves enrolled at Wesleyan, earning a Bachelor of Arts in English before commencing a long and fruitful career in media and news, eventually rising to become network chief at CNBC Asia and CNBC Europe. In 2005, he made the leap to Ogilvy & Mather, serving for the next 12 years as global chairman, global CEO and regional (Asia- Pacific) CEO for Ogilvy Public Relations. In January of this year, he launched the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science, through which, as founding president, he is working to integrate behavioral science and communications in the service of both the business and nonprofit sectors.

As a former news producer, Graves has an abiding respect for empirical evidence and a deep concern for what he sees as its cultural erosion. This is not merely a whim. Nine years ago, he became intrigued with the concept of cognitive biases, errors in reasoning that result when humans cleave too tightly to preferences and beliefs despite the presence of contrary information. That initial flicker of interest soon ignited what Graves has described as “an obsessive deep dive of studying behavioral science every day, night and weekend; it was the curiosity I’d had as a kid magnified a million-fold.”

Such unbridled immersion has helped Graves to develop an expertise with the subject matter and a facility with its lexicon. Indeed, in the course of conversation he swivels nimbly from phenomena like rosy retrospection bias to the illusory truth effect to the research area for which he is perhaps best known: confirmation bias.

According to the abstract for a 1998 journal article by Dr. Raymond S. Nickerson (Tufts University) in the Review of General Psychology (Vol. 2, No. 2, 175-220), confirmation bias “ … connotes the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.” For Graves, this translates to our cultural tendency to jettison “any evidence that does not confirm our own prejudices.” It is, he asserts, a psychosocial behavior that has been exacerbated by advances in communications technology: “Look, the internet undoubtedly opened up channels and platforms that many people had previously been boxed out of. That said, it has also erased the notion of expertise, particularly in the news industry. It used to be that news was trusted and revered. It was an expertise that one developed through study and apprenticeship and that had its own incredibly rigorous codes, standards and practices. Now anyone, anywhere, can post anything online and call it news. Conversely, that same line of thinking emboldens other people, when presented with facts, to call them opinion.”

While Graves is troubled by the pandemic nature of confirmation bias, he is even more unsettled by the polarizing impact it is having on American democracy and dialogue, and the irony that, as his hero the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman says, presenting more facts seems to worsen rather than improve the behavior. “What do you do,” Graves asks, “when there is no longer such a thing as mutually agreeable evidence?”

If you are Graves, you make educating the masses about confirmation bias, and eradicating it, your raison d’être. Within his own field, Graves has founded the behavioral insights initiative at the nonprofit Institute for Public Relations and, more recently, the new center at Ogilvy. Beyond, he regularly beats the drum on television news and as a guest speaker at the World Economic Forum (Davos), South by Southwest and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is likewise a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, and, in 2016, was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency during which he developed a mobile app that helps advertisers identify potential cognitive biases.

Meanwhile, there is one other force that Graves sees as a potential foil for confirmation bias — an Exeter education. “What is happening in the Academy’s classrooms is incredibly important,” he asserts.

“Harkness is respectful, but not safe. It’s an environment where kids can tear apart big, meaty issues, and where it’s OK to feel uncomfortable doing that. At the same time, the culture of non sibi is paramount as a potential catalyst for empathy, which we need so that we do not cave in to self-censorship or fall prey to hate speech. If we can scale these things up, we might have a shot, but we have to start young, because confirmation bias starts early.”

Watch Graves present confirmation bias at a recent PEA assembly:

Christopher Graves '77 from Phillips Exeter Academy.


—Melanie Nelson

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.