Does Evidence Change Beliefs?
The Power of Confirmation and the Weakness of Data
Whether it is a debate about gun control, football, vaccinations, or a domestic disagreement, to shift opinions we need to first consider the other person’s mind. What are their preestablished notions? What are their motivations? When we have a strong motivation to believe that something is true, even the sturdiest of proof to the contrary will fall on deaf ears
Beliefs rarely stand on their own; they are intertwined with a network of other beliefs and drives. Considering the other person’s existing outlook will help clarify how we can present arguments in a way most convincing to them, rather than a way most convincing to us. While we may instinctively launch into an argument with a hefty sack of evidence to explain why we are right and the other side is wrong, this may lead us astray. What the studies teach us is that the person on the other side will likely shut down or fiercely find counterarguments. To successfully elicit change, we therefore need to identify common motivations. As we will see, once we identify those common goals, we then need to call upon our emotions to help get the message across.
How We Were Persuaded to Reach for the Moon
The Incredible Sway of Emotion
In life, we tend to focus on our differences, because those carry the most amount of information about what makes each person unique. We forget that while people sometimes look and sound different from us, our brains are organized in a very similar way and will react similarly given the same stimulation.
The similarity of the machinery of our minds may not be an easy notion to accept, because from our point of view—from inside our skull—our mental world feels completely unique. It is difficult to imagine that others around us share very similar neural patterns of activity—and, therefore, similar mental states, thoughts, and feelings. How could this other person outside of me be so much like me? Yet the basic architecture of our brains is remarkably similar, often generating similar reactions when we are experiencing the same events and stimuli.
The great benefit of sharing similar brain function and structure is that it makes it easier for us to communicate ideas, which means that we need not navigate the world on our own. One of the most powerful ways to communicate ideas effectively is to share feelings. Emotions are especially contagious; by expressing feelings ourselves we are shaping other people’s emotional states, and by doing so we make it more likely that the people in front of us will take on our point of view. But will any type of emotion work? Should you elicit laughter or fear? Hope or dread?
Should You Scare People into Action?
Moving with Pleasure and Freezing with Fear
The human brain is built to associate “forward” action with a reward, not with avoiding harm, because that is often (but not always) the most useful response.
When we are faced with the possibility of acquiring something good, our brains trigger a chain of biological events that makes us more likely to act fast. This is known as the brain’s “Go” response, and it involves signals that originate in a region deep in the brain known as the midbrain. The signals move up the brain to the striatum, near the center of the brain, and finally to regions in the frontal cortex that control motor responses.
In contrast, when we are anticipating something bad, our instinct is to withdraw. The brain triggers a “No Go” reaction. These “No Go” signals also originate deep in the midbrain and move up the brain to the striatum and the frontal cortex. But unlike “Go” signals, they inhibit a response. As a result, we are more likely to execute an action when we are anticipating something good than when we are anticipating something bad.
If you want someone to act quickly, promising a reward that elicits an anticipation of pleasure may be better than threatening them with a punishment that elicits an anticipation of pain. Whether you are trying to motivate your team to work harder or your child to tidy their room, remember the brain’s “Go” reaction. Creating positive anticipation in others—perhaps a weekly acknowledgment on the company website of the most productive employee or the possibility of finding a beloved toy under a pile of clothing—may be more effective at motivating action than the threat of a pay cut or a time-out.
How You Obtain Power by Letting Go
The Joy of Agency and the Fear of Losing Control
At times we should just sit back and enjoy the ride. We should be delighted that the pilot has full control over our plane, not us. If we were in control of the airplane, we would most likely be dead. It is best to allow your doctor, who has years of medical education and hands-on experience, to make medical decisions for you. It is wise to keep your money in a bank, not under your mattress, and to avoid stock picking. But there is nothing more terrifying than giving away control to another human being.
It is difficult to let go, but awareness can help. Understanding why we are the way we are, and being conscious of our deeply rooted drive to make decisions, may help us hand over the wheel once in a while. With awareness comes the understanding that giving away control, even a little, even just the perception of it, is a simple but hugely effective way to increase people’s well-being and motivation.
Ironically, releasing control is a powerful tool of influence. For example, a parent may want to ask a child who is a picky eater to make their own salad, to enhance the likelihood that they will eat their greens. Students can be offered the opportunity to build their own syllabus in order to increase their interest in their studies. Clients can be encouraged to make more choices, to boost their satisfaction. Employees can help create company rules, to facilitate their own motivation. Promoting self-creation is a great way to help others become happier, healthier, and more successful. Offering control, or even perceived control, is ultimately the best way to get people to act.
What Do People Really Want to Know?
The Value of Information and the Burden of Knowledge
The next time you are seated in an aircraft that is about to take off, look around yourself during the preflight safety demonstration. How many people are paying attention to the potentially lifesaving instructions? How many are scrolling through Facebook for essential last-minute updates from friends? You would think the passengers would be a captive audience; they are literally stuck in their seats with nowhere to go. Yet a quick look around will confirm that most people would rather entertain themselves than pay attention to the crew.
You may argue that we have all been through the drill before: seat belt, oxygen mask, life jacket, exit door—we get it. But the fact of the matter is that different airplanes have different safety features. In fact, even if you have flown on the exact same aircraft before, you should listen closely. This is because rehearsing the safety procedure just before takeoff reactivates the required sequence in your brain, which makes it more likely that you will execute the actions automatically if needed. In a state of emergency, quick reactions are crucial.
Preflight safety demonstration videos now include everything from models break-dancing in bathing suits to cute cartoons and stand-up comedy. Many highlight enchanting travel destinations. And people watch them, because they fulfill at least one of the principles that make people want to pay attention: they induce positive emotions.
There is a vital lesson here. Whether at work or at home, our instinct is that if we have something important to convey, the other person will want to know. This instinct is wrong. If people do not even pay attention to information that could potentially save their lives, you cannot presume they will hear what you have to say. We need to rethink what really causes people to want to listen and then reframe our message accordingly, because being heard is by far the most important ingredient for influence. What, then, do people want to know?
The Future of Influence?
Your Mind in My Body
Brain tumors, head injuries, and chemical substances that find their way into your brain can dramatically change who you are. Physical injuries to your brain can completely alter your thoughts, feelings, memories, and personality. For example, surgically remove your hippocampi and you will be unable to create new memories of your life or insert a large metal rod through your frontal lobes and you will become implosive and antisocial. Your brain creates your mind, and so changing your brain will change your mind.
Maybe one day we will affect each other’s actions and thoughts by directly altering neural activity in each other’s brains. Just as neurons in my brain affect other neurons in my brain—altering my memories, values, and actions—they could directly alter the firing of neurons in your brain—changing your memories, values, and actions. Thoughts, like the idea of conquering the moon or giving introverts a voice, are, in essence, electrical-chemical signals in our brains. These signals can be recorded, they can be transmitted, and they can be interpreted, and so it may in principle be possible to affect each other’s thoughts in this way.
Of course, for that to happen, we’ll need a much more precise understanding of the complex circuitry of neurons in the human brain and how their function maps onto thoughts and behavior. This understanding, if possible, is far in the future.