If you were like me, you may have recently have trekked to the voting booth to participate in the Tasmanian state election. Part of that glorious democratic refrain is having your letterbox stuffed with campaign material designed to tug eloquently on your heartstrings so they can count on you come election day…or something like that. Material such as the image below; courtesy of the Bob Brown Foundation (BBF).
I have to say, as someone who voted for the Greens (the reasons for which I outlined here), this didn’t feel great to read. There is no doubt that climate change is the most pervasive and pressing issue facing life on earth as we know it. We can turn the tide, but we are out of time and it needs to happen absolutely immediately. So in that respect, the message is correct. The delivery however: “If you don’t vote for the Greens you are a bad person” is not only lacking empathy and tact it is more likely to convince people to NOT vote Green than to shame them into changing their voting preferences. In fact, I strongly considered changing my vote from the Greens to Labor from this flyer alone. I didn’t though. I chose to green my vote for my future self.
There’s a lot to unpack here and we can delve into some interesting parts of our psychology to understand a bit more about why this is such a thoughtless campaign and why such a short message is indicative of much larger forces in play. I hope you’re ready for another well sourced stream of consciousness because that’s most likely what this will turn into! There is a big information dump coming so I’ll try to break it into clear and manageable chunks.
- Setting the scene
- Confirmation bias
- Cognitive dissonance
- How to change someone’s mind
- How does this all end?
1. Setting the scene
As a trainer, I have a responsibility to a client before I provide them with a single workout. People seek out gyms and specifically trainers because they are looking to achieve some sort of outcome. If I do a good job of listening to the client and understanding the story they tell me – we have a good chance at success. Or I can follow the same path that the BBF tumbled down and fail to help my clients every single time.
The goal of the BBF, and mine with a new client, is behavioural change. Bob wants you to change your vote, I want you to change probably, like, a bunch of small things – schedule a free consult today to find out more! To do that, We need to change your perception.
Interestingly though this is not a one way street flowing from perception to behaviour: An experiment in 1963 showed that in certain situations humans can infer their perceptions based on behaviours. An example is forgetting to indicate when you are merging into a road from a slip lane. You may begin to think that indicating isn’t super necessary here because everyone knows what’s up anyway, especially if no one bats an eyelid if you don’t indicate. If someone gave you a little bip when you didn’t indicate you probably would be more mindful to indicate next time.
I am hopeful I am not the only one that can very literally relate to this example – it shows how our brain likes to warp our values here and there to keep things green across the board. We don’t like being in situations where our behaviours don’t match our worldview so we try to modify our perception to square it up, which leads to the first big topic: Confirmation bias.
2. Confirmation bias
You have probably heard of confirmation bias before but maybe, like me, have not had a concrete grasp of what it is or how it affects all of us. Confirmation bias is the tendency people have to recall and embrace information in a way that confirms their beliefs and spend less time and tend to reject information that contradicts them. There have been many experiments that analyse just how easily we fall prey to confirmation bias.
One such experiment asked a group of respondents (half of whom were in favour capital punishment and half of whom were opposed) to analyse a pair of fictitious studies, one with arguments supporting the efficacy of capital punishment and the other concluding that capital punishment had no real effect on crime. Unsurprisingly, those who were in favour of capital punishment found the study supporting it to be far more credible and doubted the one against. The reverse was true for the people who opposed capital punishment. In fact, when asked to rate their support for their position after having read the studies, the respondents were even more strident in their support and more hostile towards the opposing view.
This seems to be a poor evolutionary trait. You can imagine in the wild that this would not work out so well. In their book “The Enigma of Reason” Mercier and Sperber suggest that a mouse “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around” would be in for a bad time. You would think that a trait which ends up getting you into deadly trouble would have been selected against in humans pretty early on. However, Mercier and Sperber suggest this is in part due to the “hypersociability” of humans. Our biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. They suggest that this cooperation is favoured in humans and leads to what they term as a “myside bias”.
In early human hunter-gatherer social groups, social standing and fitting in were far more important than using logic and critical thinking to clearly analyse data on capital punishment. It’s important to note that this isn’t random, we are quite adept at spotting the weakness in other people’s arguments but the bias seems to be with our perceptions of our own views – as an experiment by Mercier and some European colleagues found. In early humans there isn’t that much to gain from clear reasoning but there is everything to gain from maintaining a good standing in the group. As Mercier and Sperber suggest “This is one of the many cases where the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.”
While in early societies confirmation bias did have a sound reason for existing, with how quickly humanity has advanced this inbuilt predisposition normally ends up causing harm in a world drowning in information and with an unfortunate amount of it being mis or disinformation. We can see clearly that it’s going to be hard to change someone’s mind (and subsequently behaviour) about anything as we already have a bias towards views that agree with our own and tend to undervalue opposing views.
I see this all the time. A client who believes that they cannot lose weight no matter what they do may tend to cling to articles that suggest weight loss is determined mostly through genetics (genetics certainly has an impact but is far from the sole or most important factor) and be skeptical of my advice to regulate diet and exercise. This scenario (which I made up and is not based on a real client!) is all too common and leads us directly into the next big challenge we have to contend with: Cognitive dissonance.
3. Cognitive dissonance
You may have heard this term floated around too. I had a bad habit of using confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance interchangeably. In fact I’ve often somewhat smugly told people about a lot of societal issues caused by “cognitive bias”. Rest assured, they are two distinct concepts, if connected and similar. Festinger was the author of the cognitive dissonance theory in 1957. He suggests that humans have an innate drive to harmonise their attitudes and behaviour and will seek to avoid disharmony (dissonance). It’s important to note that there is no suggestion that the methods to eliminate the dissonance actually work, simply that there is an effort to reduce dissonance and create harmony. We can look at three broad ways in which we can end up in states of dissonance:
3.1 Forced Compliance
Firstly, there is Forced Compliance (I had to do something publicly that I, privately, did not want to do). A Festinger and Carlsmith experiment in 1959 had subjects perform dull tasks for an hour and then asked them to lie to those in the waiting room and tell them the tasks were actually fun and exciting. They were variably paid $1 or $20 to do so. When asked after the experiment to rate the enjoyment of the tasks, those paid $1 were more likely to report that the activities were enjoyable. The subjects that were paid $20 found this incentive enough to lie. Those paid $1 did not have a strong enough incentive to lie and therefore experienced dissonance and attempted to combat this by convincing themselves that the tasks actually were enjoyable.
In my experience a lot of people who attempt to lose weight on restrictive meal plans and unreasonable calorie deficits will convince themselves that they actually feel more full even though their brain may be screaming “YOU HUNGRY, EAT!!”
3.2 Decision Making
The second is Decision Making. As our lives are ripe with decisions, we will always have to weigh the pros and cons of alternatives against each other. In difficult decisions where there are strong benefits and drawbacks to either choice, we often experience dissonance after making our decision (think about buyer’s remorse). When making such a decision you are forgoing the advantages of the option you didn’t choose while guaranteeing the disadvantages of the option you did choose.
Festinger suggests that people tend to “spread apart the alternatives” when facing this dissonance issue – performing mental gymnastics to increase the attractiveness of the choice taken and emphasise the disadvantages of the option not taken. Especially in winter, this is a battle that rages in the minds of all people with the gym. Many choose to stay home and warm rather than braving the cold and lifting some stuff up and putting it down again. We all find ourselves coming up with reasons why it was a good idea to stay home and why going to the gym on that particular day probably wasn’t necessary or even good for us at all. If you can’t relate to this I’ll eat a dumbbell.
Thirdly we have Effort. We will, naturally, value highly those things which we have put great effort into. It would cause considerable dissonance to put a lot of effort into something and then to feel that the outcome was minimal. We can try various ways to convince ourselves it was all worth it: We didn’t actually spend that long, it wasn’t that much effort or it was kind of fun. Most commonly though, we will try to convince ourselves that the outcome was worth the effort, this is creatively termed ‘effort justification’.
An experiment by Aronson and Mills in 1959 had female students in two separate groups attend a very dull lecture on sex which was centred around a low level animal’s reproductive process. Before attending the lecture. the first group had to read aloud a series of benign sexual words to a male lecturer, which was deemed to cause ‘mild embarrassment’. The second group had to read obscene words and a very explicit sexual passage which was deemed to cause ‘severe embarrassment’. After the dull lecture the groups were quizzed on their enjoyment of the lecture. As expected the mildly embarrassed group on the whole described the lecture as dull. The severely embarrassed group described the lecture as much more enjoyable. The effort they had to put in created dissonance and so they had convinced themselves that the lecture was a better outcome than it really was.
Effort related dissonance happens in the fitness and weight loss industry all the time. I have had a number of clients who have weight loss goals or muscle mass goals who work really hard in the gym but cannot seem to change their shape at all – this is almost always able to be traced to a lack of consistency in one or more areas – yet will report that they feel like they have completely transformed. I believe that feeling better is the ultimate goal of training so changing shape is not necessarily a marker for success but it is important to a lot of people and for some it is critical to stop their health from spiralling. In spite of a clear lack of movement on this measurement a client will still feel that they are in a much better position and continue the behaviour patterns that are stopping more significant success from happening. They are actively engaging in effort justification to reduce their sense of dissonance.
We can see powerful ways our brain stealthily changes our perception of reality to keep things looking chipper for us. However if you’ve read one of these before, you know I like to identify the problems and then try and piece together some solutions so we can all come out more enlightened and zen. With that in mind, how do you change someone’s…mind?
4. How to change someone’s mind
I always remind people to use their power for good and not evil, so please note that while being able to help people see things in a new light and broaden their understanding may help them reach a new conclusion, coercion and parlour tricks (such as some shady applications of NLP) are not ok.
The big thing that nobody likes hearing is that you cannot change someone’s mind by brute force. It doesn’t matter how right you are, you cannot batter someone over the head with your rightness until they see reason. In spite of this, as the BBF ad shows, it’s still the most popular way to try.
This doesn’t discount that there are some times where a metaphorical clip around the ears is warranted. Sometimes we all need a wakeup call but I would suggest this method is most effective when used for an immediate and important situation. Crossing the road with a free spirited toddler in peak hour traffic is not the time to deploy your full TED talk on why someone shouldn’t run in front of cars. Long term, helping them understand why they shouldn’t have a deathwish rather than simply telling them no is fantastic, but in the immediate term whatever gets them to stay safely by your side is probably a win. With all that said, let’s have a look at how we might help someone see the light.
4.1 Join the Community
There is a fantastic article by the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) that has some great advice (and form their views based on some excellent studies) on how we can go about this. The first suggestion is to Join the Community. If you are trying to reach someone, you need to be active in the communities they are part of. I live in the inner suburbs and play ice hockey. Taking a megaphone into the changerooms of the Bothwell masters footy team and telling them to listen to me about why they need to use different footy socks sounds absurd. This is what we do all the time though. We do not engage with an established community, we simply tell people in it to change. As we have discovered above this is going to cause a backfire effect.
When your message is perceived as threatening or contrary to deeply held values, people will most likely be dismissive and find ways to rationalise why it is wrong. I am half the age of the footy players, I have a city slicker lifestyle and I play a completely different sport so straight away I’m going to get a “who the hell does this guy think he is?” response. Many of these guys have been wearing the same socks for longer than I’ve been alive! However if I was to consult with some well respected players around the state and they agreed to go to the clubs and say why they were using the new socks and offer it as a good alternative, the response would be far different. Now someone who has been in the trenches with them, who they look up to, has shared why he changed socks. It will start to make more sense why the players would change socks too. After all, this guy didn’t get to be so good at footy for nothing, so if he’s doing it, it’s probably not as bad as all that.
I decided to branch out from the traffic analogies and it’s probably backfired. Hopefully the point is clear though – when you are engaging with someone, you have to be able to be part of their life. We instinctively fear outsiders and people who are not on myside (from Mercier and Sperber earlier on remember). If you want to change someone’s mind and their behaviour to something more like yours it is only fair you show them the same respect and be involved enough to understand where they come from.
4.2 Communicate with Imagery
We often are trying to communicate with other people in abstract terms, which leaves a lot of wiggle room for people to form their own interpretations. When I write in my blogs that men (straight, white, men) need to stand up and be accountable for the avalanche of discrimination and abuse women face every day, different people will read that differently. No doubt some men will interpret this as me being a virtue signaller and calling all men baddies. Some women may interpret this as a man stepping in where he doesn’t belong and attempting to take over the narrative (again).
The intention was that in all of our backyards, all of our homes and all of our offices, the male population needs to accept that some of the space we have taken up for generations is not ours. It belongs to women, indigenous people and other minorities who have as much right to space as we do. In reality that looks like having equal representation, closing the pay gap, legislating against overt and covert discrimination and making equality and empathy core subjects in education systems. In addition to giving it back we should start tidying up the mess we’ve made of our own space. This includes but is not limited to a much more expansive codification of violence and harassment of women and minorities, a robust re-education program to stamp out the entrenched ‘boy’s clubs’ and supporting women who wish to have a family to not have to damage their careers to do so – which includes expanded options for paternal leave as part of a wider program of re-education about the shared responsibilities of home life. It’s about giving the same privileges we enjoy to everyone and it will take an army of good men with a lot of mops and buckets to clean the spaces we have spent centuries tarnishing.
I have used language quite deliberately to crystallise my intention. I have been very clear about tangible outcomes that I think are important to addressing the problem yet I have also delved into the land of metaphor and analogy to add colour and flavour. To quote a couple of paragraphs form the SSIR article:
““We are primates, with a third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space,” Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker writes in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. “For us to go from ‘I think I understand’ to ‘I understand,’ we need to see the sights and feel the motions. Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images.”
A study by Princeton University linguist Adele Goldberg suggests that “metaphorical sentences may spark increased brain activity in emotion-related regions because they allude to physical experiences.” Her study showed activity in the emotion area of participants’ brains when they heard metaphors that connected to experience. “Sweet” drew a stronger response than “kind.” “Bitter” drew a stronger response than “mean.” Goldberg’s coauthor, Francesca Citron, a psychologist at Lancaster University, suggests that figurative language creates a rhetorical advantage.”
It should be clear that imagery isn’t simply finding just the right clip art, it’s about creating a vivid picture for the person you are talking to. This can be very powerful and leads onto the next point:
4.3 The Nuance in Emotion
You might have experienced a difference of opinion with someone and had the thought “If they could feel the same things I feel, they would change their mind.” It seems impossible that someone could experience the same emotions we do and feel differently. Well, that’s not entirely true. as the SSIR article explains “Research tells us that people are really good at avoiding information for three reasons: It makes them feel bad; it obligates them to do something they do not want to do; or it threatens their identity, values, and worldview.”
As Festinger would put it, the above reasons would create disharmony. We would naturally try to remedy that or avoid it in the first place. Normally avoidance is the easiest and quickest way to make the bad stuff go bye-bye. The good news is the opposite is true. We are drawn towards things that make us feel good. We are like moths to that dopamine flame. There is a whole other blog article here about the science of addiction but that’s for another time. For now it’s enough to know that if we can elicit a good feeling, we are more likely to get a positive response from someone. There are many studies and articles (see here, here and here) which show reward is far more successful than punishment when it comes to behaviour change. The upshot of all this is that giving someone a feel bad moment (a punishment) in order to guilt or shame them into changing their ways is very unlikely to work. The science is clear on this, it would seem that the schadenfreude of the authors (a reward) may get the better of them in some cases.
I have the dubious honour of knowing that if you get stopped by police for a minor speeding indiscretion and you have had a clean record for three years, they can let you off with a caution. I timed my indiscretions two years and 363 days apart, however apparently it’s more of a guideline. I can say with absolute conviction (my word choice is really letting me down this time around) that I have thought far more about my speed in relation to getting to the three year mark unscathed than I have about getting snagged by a speed camera. Hopefully I have not jinxed myself. The point here is that even though the punishment is waved in front of my face every day and the reward has happened literally twice in about six years, the power of the reward still outweighs the punishment. Neat.
4.4 Be Specific!
Especially when you say specific. The Pacific is a miniseries on HBO. To get back on topic however, when you are looking at behavioural changes (as a consequence of changing someone’s mind) you need to give them something specific to work with. Nebulous phrases like “eat better” or “train harder” are not helpful. Let’s look at this paragraph from the SSIR article:
“In one study, marketing professor Melanie Rudd and her colleagues provided two different calls to action to two distinct groups. One group was asked to “support environmental sustainability.” The other group was asked to “increase the amount of materials or resources that are recycled or reused.” The 70 participants had 24 hours to complete their tasks. In a follow-up survey, the researchers assessed how happy the participants were with their action. Participants who had the concrete goal of increasing resources for recycling reported greater happiness. They conducted similar experiments for “make someone happy” versus “make someone smile,” and “give those who need bone marrow transplants greater hope” versus “give those who need bone marrow transplants a better chance of finding a donor.” Rudd and her colleagues argue that concrete calls to action make people happier because the gap between their expectations and reality becomes smaller. They are left feeling good about what they were able to accomplish.”
This is a marketing spin however the point remains that by giving someone the chance to succeed, you have given them something to feel good about. We have taken our fictitious client/driver/footy player on a wending and winding journey and we have made them care about the thing. This is a great way to turn that care into action. Give people a way to have a win. We could all use another win. Now, this tale has wended and winded almost to the end, which brings me to my final point:
4.5 The Art of Storytelling
I have said for a long time and to anyone who will listen that it’s one of my goals to be a great storyteller. Stories are the magic that binds all of us together. A way of sharing an experience with another person as if you were there. Art and science both play a role in creating a rich story that draws the reader or listener in. When it comes to changing someone’s mind, storytelling is how you pull all of the above points together. You may not change someone’s mind – and that’s ok – but if you can tell them a great story it will stay with them far longer than your annotated Powerpoint presentation with the perfect clip art on each slide. I’ve been told that callback is one of the hallmarks of a good story, am I doing it right?
One of the other important things about storytelling is what you don’t say. Leaving purposeful gaps for people to draw their own conclusions is what separates the good from the great. I’ll borrow another paragraph from the SSIR article:
“Because we fill in missing details with what is familiar to us, leaving some specific details out of your story creates an empty space for your readers to insert their own experience—what is known and familiar to them. When Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body washed ashore on the Greek island of Kos on September 2, 2015, after his family fled the Syrian conflict, his image was captured by a photojournalist. The image and story went viral, and donations to support the Syrian refugees spiked. Why did his image capture the world’s imagination? It may have been his universality. In his simple red T-shirt and blue shorts, with his face obscured and the absence of identifying details—we couldn’t see his face, and his clothes were so simple that we might see them on any child—it was possible for us to imagine a child we loved in his place.”
I bet you remember that photo, which is why I don’t have to put it here – you instantly knew the image mentioned in the paragraph. I have put the image at the bottom of this post below the references if you don’t recall it, however it does come with a trigger warning – I strongly believe that this is an important piece of journalism that everyone should see as it is the world we live in even if it is disturbing to look at. It is powerful because it forces you to connect to it. You have to fill in what’s missing and suddenly you are in the picture too. Let’s put all of this together.
5. How does this all end?
Blessedly for us both, dear reader, soon. Although, I could talk about this stuff until my jaw fell off, I find it fascinating and intrinsic to who we are and why we are. This story all began when I lifted that ill fated BBF leaflet out of my letterbox and turned my nose up at it. So let’s connect the dots on why this comes across as such a bad advertisement. These are people that I passionately agree with and even I wanted to wash my hands of them from one simple line.
If we look at the line we are given from the BBF “Green your vote. Or be part of the problem.” The first thing to understand is who the ad is talking to. They aren’t talking to people who are going to vote for the Greens, they don’t need to talk to them really. They are talking to people who are undecided primarily, people who can still be swayed. Remembering the quote from the SSIR article: “…people are really good at avoiding information for three reasons: It makes them feel bad; it obligates them to do something they do not want to do; or it threatens their identity, values, and worldview.” We know this is called dissonance and this ad is pretty much a picture perfect way to cause dissonance.
If you break down how this will play out when an undecided voter reads this, (remember at this stage they are NOT voting green) they are told to vote green or be part of the problem which instantly threatens their identity and worldview. Joe has worked in timber his whole adulthood to provide for his family and give them the best life he can; all he wants is the best for his kids and now he’s being told he’s a problem? This will most likely make him feel bad, therefore voting green will be something he does not want to do. That’s three strikes. Sorry BBF, by every metric this campaign is a complete flop.
Now if the copywriters at the BBF had read this blog or done like, any research whatsoever, they may have gone about things differently. Looking at all the ways in which we can reach people and show them new information in a way that they may absorb and modify their views enough to say, change their vote, they might have thought about it something like this:
- What community do the people I want to reach belong to? In this case let’s say they are looking to reach tradies. A lot of tradies love going bush and fishing and enjoying the wild and wonderful wilderness we have here (side note: alliteration is a powerful marketing tool as this article explains). Structuring the message around things these people are familiar with and enjoy would be a good start. I can imagine the picture becoming a group of mates camping in lush bushland with their 4WD’s and fishing gear in the background while they share a beer.
- We understand that using imagery, not only actual images but descriptive language is much more powerful. We also know that people are drawn towards things that make them feel good and how much more powerful reward is than punishment. Let’s scrap “Or be part of the problem”; that line fails at all these objectives. If we flip it and try something more evocative we could look at a line that reads: “Preserve this moment, share it with your kids”. We now have a line that has the reader imagining themselves in the picture. Now they are there, they are part of the moment.
- We also know that emotion plays such a strong part in how effective a message is. Emotion is the trigger for action. There is always a feeling before there is an action. Not taking action is also an action. The BBF has made a campaign that alienates people and makes them feel bad…not a good recipe for eliciting support. If you look at the new line we came up with “Preserve this moment, share it with your kids” not only does the reader now feel that they are in the moment, or imagining themselves in a similar one, they will be rewarded by being able to share it with their kids. That feels great. Sharing a camping trip in the pristine forests of Tasmania with your kids is worth preserving and it would feel good to know you did something to make sure your kids could enjoy this too.
- The message has to be specific and achievable. This is the one thing the BBF gets right. The behaviour they want is simple and easy. Vote for the Greens. We don’t need to change a thing here. The reader will know exactly what to do based on this line to get the good feelings they want to preserve from the image and message we have crafted
- This is where it is all brought together. We want to tell a good story. We don’t have much time to do it either. We have two small sentences and one image. However what we have done is to create the idea of a story and let the reader fill in the rest themselves. They are now part of the story and invested and know that by taking action they will feel good. Will it convince every undecided voter to vote for the Greens? No chance. But it has a way better chance than what the BBF ran with which probably cost them votes if anything. Let’s compare their effort and my hastily cobbled together effort and see the difference in how they make you feel and which one would be more likely to convince you to take action. If you still think the BBF one is better then I have wasted a lot of our time…
The leaflet is merely the tip of the iceberg (which is melting). We live in an age of fake news, alternative facts and even our mainstream media continues to muddy the waters between opinion and fact. I want to know why we keep slipping down this obviously bad and slippery slope. I hope this has gone some way to helping you understand why it happens too. There’s no easy answer for the widening divide we face. Understanding why we feel the this way should make it easier for us to be more self aware about our worldview as well as how to be more understanding and communicate with people who view the world differently. If this goes any way at all towards closing the gap or even if all I have achieved is getting this off my chest and out into the open then this story has definitely come to a happy end.
P.S No blog of mine will ever truly come to an end until I remind you all to…