Using The Psychology and Science of Decision Making to Change People’s Minds

In his magnificent Influence: Science and Practice, Robert Cialdini cites authority and likeability as two of the most effective factors we should cultivate when trying to influence someone’s decision. He writes about certain click-whirr responses which we have in reaction to certain situations such as someone’s celebrity or sense of humour or dress – particularly a uniform or white coat. Why do such qualities affect influence over a subject? Because wittingly or unwittingly (it doesn’t really matter) they are ascribing a higher probability to the reward or benefit or upside which that person is promising will accrue as a result of whatever investment (actual or potential) is required.

While a good deal of the job of branding and advertising is to convince the consumer of the perceived relative value of the particular good or service in question, much of it is aimed at increasing the perceived likelihood of accruing such quality. If I walked into Harrogate, for example, with no previous experience or knowledge of the place, I’d probably have very little idea which café or restaurant to eat in. Someone might have told me that Betty’s was a good bet, but – imagine that I don’t know anything about Betty’s – what are the chances of me enjoying a delicious cheese on toast? Perhaps Betty’s is owned by the sister of the person who recommended it to me.

Stuck in Harrogate with no other information, I might well decide to go to McDonalds because – as distinctly average as their burgers are – at least I am all but guaranteed to receive exactly the same burger every time. Their branding – coupled with my experience of that brand – would certainly make this the safe option for me in this situation. My expectation calculation would entail a tiny probability of disappointment and a tiny probability for thrill and a 99% probability for delivering the same satisfaction as it always has done. To say that McDonalds almost always meets – but does not exceed – our expectations is true with both a small and capital E. That’s precisely why we use that word in that way colloquially.

As it happens, if I were to “take the risk” and venture over to Betty’s, while I could only guess how likely that delicious Rarebit might be, my probability assessment may be swayed by the long queue of people extending out of the door. This “social proof” as Cialdini calls it – or the belief in something because others believe it to be true – is often dangerous and misleading but rightly or wrongly, it is a powerful factor in the formation of our probability assessment. If this visual information were coupled with a raving review from the Michelin guide – something with a lot of “authority” – then I might well apportion a high enough probability to this delicious dish to join the queue, something which in itself is quite an investment of my scarce resource, time. It had better be good.

Crucially, my conscious mind and voice will now be is now saying things like “I hear this place is excellent” and speaking as if I have a newfound certainty about my chosen destination – again resorting to the single outcome prediction which can be woefully disillusioned. My subconscious, however, will remain considerate of all the information available to me and will be performing investment calculations almost continually that actually have the power to change my mind at any time, leading me to walk out again if the queuing time becomes too long or if I witness people leaving clutching their stomachs in pain.

Nowhere is the importance of understanding probabilities more acute than in the process of change management where companies spend millions trying to persuade their staff to spend less time doing one thing and more time doing another. If only they fully understood the principles behind why we do what we do! Simply communicating the benefits of change is like simply increasing the fine for not having a ticket while leaving the number of traffic wardens unchanged. It is like someone telling me in precise but dispassionate terms exactly how delicious the food is in Betty’s without producing any kind of evidence to increase my perception of the probability.

The fact is that during any kind of half decent change management procedure, very few staff are unaware of why it’s necessary and what the benefits will be to them individually and collectively as a result. They simply don’t believe it! The likelihoods that they ascribe to accruing those benefits are just too small to have any positive impact in their Expectation calculation.

Coupled with this is the weight of the potential downside that the upside has to overcome. Anyone who has ever watched Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs will be familiar with the mind’s response in the face of incomplete information. During the seminal scene of that film in which a man has his ear cut off during a disgusting torture, the audience is teased by Tarantino the director who – rather than showing any of the gory details – simply moves his camera up and to the left. All we see is a door in the wall. The mental images that we produce, however, are far more traumatic that anything a fake blade and a few prosthetics could ever produce.

Similarly, when faced with an uncertain future, people tend to have what psychologists call “catastrophic fantasies”, that is, worst case scenarios dominate their thoughts. The potential downsides in people’s emotional calculations are enormous and exist with a high probability of coming about. No amount of stating the benefits of a potential vision of the future is going to compensate for that if the vision looks highly unlikely to the person who ultimately has to make a decision about to change their behaviour or not.

The bottom line is that all decisions are made through a combination of upside and downside assessment in which likelihood calculations are integral. I am NOT saying that people do this consciously every time and I’m definitely not saying it’s rational much less accurate. I’m just saying that people do it and so if you want to motivate and persuade people then you need to take this on board. Cialdini’s various influencing tactics are basically just ways of interacting with people on this level in a powerful and not always discernible way.

Posted 02:25pm by Caspar and filed in Decision Making