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Critical Thinking

Unbelievable Memories

Careful. It's a trap.

Careful. It’s a trap.

I used to think that experience plus memory produced beliefs. Now I think I may have gotten this backwards as well. (For other things I’ve gotten backwards, click here).

Here’s how I used to think memory worked:

We experience the world around us and we remember our previous experiences. By and large, our memories of previous experiences are accurate. Perhaps we lose a little detail around the edges but the main ideas are clear and constant. The combination of (accurate) memories plus current experiences leads us to conclusions about how the world works. These conclusions create mental models and, voilà, we have a belief system. Our memories create our beliefs.

As our experiences change, our belief system does, too. We’re constantly comparing our experiences to our mental models. As our experiences – both remembered and current – change, our mental models should change, too. We can be confident that our memories are accurate and that our mental models are up to date.

It’s all neat and tidy. Everything flows in a nice, straight line. It’s completely logical. Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong.

According to Chris Chabris and Dan Simons, most people – 63% in their survey – believe that “human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” It’s a comforting thought but it’s wrong. We invent new memories with remarkable ease and mix up events and expectations

As Chabris and Simons point out, our memory “…depends both on what actually happened and how we make sense of what happened.” We may have the same experiences as other people but draw different lessons from them. But if my lessons learned are different from yours … well, whose memory is accurate? My lessons learned fit my mental models and yours fit yours. Our beliefs create our memories.

As Jorge Luis Borges pointed out, no one sees a unicorn because no one expects to see a unicorn. The same is true for memory – we remember what we expect to remember. William Brewer and James Treyens conducted a classic experiment on this. They asked subjects to wait briefly in “…what they thought was a graduate student’s office…” Shortly after, the researchers asked the students to recall what they saw in the office. The subjects reported seeing what one would expect to see in a graduate student’s office – books, file cabinets, etc. But none of that was there; the subjects simply made it up.

Our memories change to fit our beliefs, not the other way round. Chabris and Simons recount the story of the basketball coach Bobby Knight who was fired for “choking” a young college player. Knight and the player had radically different memories of the event. In fact, Knight claimed not to remember it at all. I suspect he was telling the truth. Knight had a famously bad temper and choking a student was apparently not such a big deal to him. Nothing special to remember. For the player, it was exactly the opposite. Being choked by a world-famous coach was a very big deal. In fact, the player remembered an “embellished” version of the event — even after seeing video tape of the event.

Who was lying? Probably neither the player nor Knight. Their memories simply conformed to their beliefs.

The list goes on. We don’t notice changes in our surroundings. We see a person in a black leather jacket leave the room. Moments later, we see a person in a black leather jacket make a phone call. We perceive it to be the same person and remember it that way – even if two very different people are wearing similar jackets.

We can also “borrow” memories from others. If my friend, Trevor, tells a colorful story about himself that peripherally involves me, I may change it over time by swapping the actors. Trevor becomes the peripheral character; I become the main event. Further, I’ll be absolutely confident that I’m telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

What’s it all mean? We’re far too confident in our own memories. Our memories change to fit our beliefs. Eyewitnesses have no idea what really happened. Different people with different memories of the same event are all telling the truth as they see it. Nothing is as it seems. And don’t you forget it.

Pre-Suasion: Influence Before Influence

Trust me.

Trust me.

In Tin Men, Richard Dreyfus and Danny De Vito play two salesmen locked in bitter competition as they sell aluminum siding to householders in Baltimore. The movie is somewhat forgettable, but it offers a master class in sales techniques.

In one scene, Dreyfus knocks on a prospective customer’s door while also dropping a five-dollar bill on the doormat. When the customer opens the door, Dreyfus picks up the bill and says, “Wow. I just found this on your doormat. It’s not mine. It must be yours.” Somewhat confused, the homeowner accepts the bill and invites Dreyfus inside where he makes a big sale.

Robert Cialdini would call Dreyfus’ maneuver a good example of pre-suasion. Before Dreyfus even introduces himself, he has already done something to show that he’s a stand-up guy. He has earned some trust.

Cialdini himself gained our trust in his first book, Influence, which details six “weapons of influence”: reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. In his new book, Pre-Suasion, he invites us to look at what happens before we deploy our weapons.

Pre-suasion is not a new idea. It’s at least as old as the traditional advice: Do a favor before asking for a favor. Like Dreyfus, however, Cialdini seems like a stand-up guy so we go along for the read. It’s a good idea because the book is chock full of practical advice on how to set the stage for persuasion.

A key idea is the “attention chute”. When we focus our attention on something, we don’t see anything else. The opportunity cost of paying attention is inattentional blindness. Thus, we don’t consider other alternatives. If our attention is focused on globalization, we may not notice how many jobs are eliminated by automation.

As Cialdini points out, the attention chute makes us suckers for palm readers. A palm reader says, “Your palm suggests that you’re a very stubborn person. Is that true?” We focus on the idea of stubbornness and search our memory banks for examples. We don’t think about the opposite of stubbornness and we don’t search for examples of it. It’s almost certain that we can find some examples of stubbornness in our memories. How could the palm reader have possibly known?

The attention chute is also known as the focusing illusion. We believe that what we focus on is important, but it may just be an illusion. If we’re focused on it, it must be important, right? It’s a cognitive bias that a palm reader or aluminum siding salesman can easily manipulate.

What’s the best defense? It’s a good idea to keep Daniel Kahneman’s advice in mind: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” If the media is filled with horror stories about the Ebola virus, you’ll probably think it’s important. But really, it’s not nearly as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it.

Cialdini takes the attention chute one step further with the idea that “what’s focal is causal.” We assume that what we focus on is not just important; it’s also the cause of whatever we’re focused on. As Cialdini notes, economists think that the exchange of money is the cause of many transactions. But maybe not. Maybe there’s another reason for the transaction. Maybe the money is just a side benefit, not the motivating cause.

The idea that focal-is-causal has many complications. For example, the first lots identified in the famous Tylenol cyanide attacks were numbers 2880 and 1910. The media broadcast the numbers far and wide and many of us used them to play the lottery. They must be important, right?

Focal-is-causal can also lead to false confessions. The police focus on a person of interest and convince themselves that she caused the crime. (This is also known as satisficing or temporizing). They then use all the tricks in the book to convince her of the same thing.

Cialdini is a good writer and has plenty of interesting stories to tell. If you like Daniel Kahneman or Dan Ariely or Jordan Ellenberg or the brothers Heath, you’ll like his book as well. And who knows? It may even help you beat the rap when the police are trying to get a confession out of you.

The Cost of Bad Writing

Enough with the passive voice!

Enough with the passive voice!

My students know that I’m a stickler for good writing. When they ask me why I’m so picky, my answer usually boils down to something that’s logically akin to, “Because I said so.”

I know that the ability to write effectively has helped my career. But is it really so important in today’s world of instant communications? Only if you want to save $400 billion a year.

Josh Bernoff, the owner of WOBS LLC, recently published his survey of 547 business professionals who write “at least two hours per week for work, excluding e-mail”. Bernoff’s findings make a clear and compelling case for teaching – and mastering — effective writing skills. His key findings:

  • Reading and writing is a full-time job. Bernoff’s respondents – most of whom were not full-time editors or writers – spend about 25.5 hours reading and 20.4 hours writing each week.
  • Though we complain about e-mail, it takes up only about a third of our reading and writing time. We spend far more time writing and reading memos, blog posts, web content, press releases, speeches, and so on.
  • We think we’re pretty good; everybody else sucks. On an effectiveness scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being totally effective), professionals rate their own writing at 6.9. They rate writing prepared by others at 5.4.
  • We agree on the Big 5. A majority of respondents thought the following issues contributed most to making written content “significantly less effective”: 1) too long; 2) poorly organized; 3) unclear; 4) too much jargon; 5) not precise enough.
  • We waste a lot of time. For all respondents, 81% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Poorly written material wastes a lot of my time”. For managers, directors, and supervisors, the figure is 84%.
  • We want feedback but have a hard time getting it. Only 49% of all respondents – and 41% of managers, directors, and supervisors – agree with the statement, “I get the feedback I need to make my writing better.”
  • Professionals want to write better but are constrained by jargon, passive voice, corporate bullshit and “…the number of people who still think writing is more about making them sound important …” than communicating clearly.

Bernoff rolls all the numbers together and concludes that, “…America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material.” The total cost? About $400 billion.

(You can find Bernoff’s white paper and infographics here. Brief summaries in the popular press also appear here and here).

Bernoff calculates the cost of wasted time. But what’s the direct cost? How much do we spend teaching our employees to write well? Bernoff doesn’t address this specifically but I found a College Board survey from 2004 that digs into the question. The survey went to 120 American companies associated with the College Board’s Business Roundtable. The result? American companies – excluding government agencies and nonprofits – spend about $3.1 billion annually “remedying deficiencies in writing”.

The College Board study also cites an April 2003 white paper titled, “The Neglected ‘R’: The Need For a Writing Revolution.” The conclusion of that study was simple: “Writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many.”

In 2006, The Conference Board picked up a similar theme in a report that asked a simple question: “Are They Ready To Work?” The survey asked companies about the most important skills that newly minted graduates should have. It then asked respondents to grade the skills of newly hired employees. Graduates of two- and four-year college programs were rated “deficient” in three areas: 1) Written communications, and 2) Writing in English; 3) Leadership.

Business leaders agree that writing is an important skill. We can cite studies going back more than a decade that suggest we’re doing a poor job teaching the skill. Bernoff’s study suggests we’re not doing any better today – in fact, we may be doing worse. What to do? We need to invest more time, energy, and effort teaching the “neglected R”. Or you could just hire me.

Your Commonplace Or Mine?

I told you this 2,000 years ago.

I told you this 2,000 years ago.

In persuasive presentations, we often appeal to commonplaces — opinions, attitudes, or perceptions that are widely held by a particular group. Like common sense, these attitudes are (supposedly) common to all members of a group. As persuaders, we can speak to a common point of view.  We’re on common ground and we can move forward together.

The problem, of course, is that commonplaces aren’t so common. Indeed, many commonplaces have equal and opposite commonplaces to counterbalance them. One commonplace advises us to look before we leap. Another reminds us that he who hesitates is lost. On the one hand, we root for the underdog. On the other hand, we admire the self-made man – who is anything but an underdog.

It seems that we can find a commonplace to suit almost any argument. Want to lower taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (The government is inefficient. You earned it. You keep it. etc.) Want to raise taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (We’re all in this together. We need to help each other. etc.) And “good” commonplaces can be twisted to support “bad” causes. As Shakespeare reminds us in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”

In my persuasion class, I ask students to write papers in which they argue a point. By and large, my students are quite adept at deploying commonplaces to support their arguments. I notice that they often deploy commonplaces that they believe in. To be persuasive, however, we need to consider the commonplaces that the audience believes in. I shouldn’t assume that you think like me. Rather, I should seek to understand what you think and use that as a starting point for building my argument.

The concept of using the audience’s commonplaces is as old as Greek rhetoric. It got a boost last year when the sociologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg published their research on argumentation and moral values. Their basic finding: we are more persuasive when we frame arguments for a political position around “the target audience’s moral values.”

Feinberg and Willer point out that liberals and conservatives have different moral values (or commonplaces in our terminology). They write “…liberals tend to be more concerned with care and equality where conservatives are more concerned with … group loyalty, respect for authority and purity.”

They then tested how to persuade conservatives to take a liberal position or vice-versa. For instance, how would you persuade conservatives to support same-sex marriage? They found that conservatives are more likely to agree with an argument based on patriotism than one based on equality and fairness. Conservatives tended to agree with an argument that, ““same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.” They were less likely to agree with an argument couched in terms of fairness and equality.

(Feinberg and Willer’s research article is here. A less technical summary is here).

Aristotle taught us that the best person to judge the quality of food is the one who eats it, not the one who prepares it. The same is true for arguments. You can’t judge how effective your argument is. Only the audience can. The moral of the story? Get over yourself. Learn what the audience is thinking.

Us Versus Them

"The school bus broke down!"

“The school bus broke down!”

How easy is it for an us-versus-them situation to arise? How often do we define our group as different from – and therefore better than – another group? The short answers: It’s surprisingly easy and it happens all the time.

In my professional life, I often saw us-versus-them attitudes arise between headquarters and the field. Staffers at head-quarters thought they were in a good position to direct field activities. People in the field thought the folks at headquarters just didn’t have a clue about the real world.

Headquarters and the field are typically separated by many factors, including geography, planning horizons, rank, age, academic experience, and tenure. Each side has plenty of reasons to feel different from – and superior to – the other side. But how many reasons does it take to generate us-versus-them attitudes?

In the early 1970s, the social psychologist Henri Tajfel tried to work out the minimum requirements for one group to discriminate against another group. It turns out that it doesn’t take much. People who are separated into groups based on their shirt color develop us-versus-them attitudes. People who are separated based on the flip of a coin do the same. Tajfel’s minimal group paradigm is quite simple: The minimum requirement to create us-versus-them attitudes is the existence of two groups.

Us-versus-them attitudes are completely natural. They arise without provocation. There’s no conspiracy. All we need is two groups. I sometimes hear managers say, “Let’s not develop us-versus-them attitudes here.” But that’s completely unnatural. Something about our human nature requires us to develop such attitudes when two groups exist. It can’t not happen.

We can’t avoid us-versus-them attitudes but we can dissolve them. We can’t stop them from starting but we can stop them once they have started.

The pioneering research on this was the Robbers Cave Experiment conducted in 1954. Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif, professors at the University of Oklahoma, selected two dozen 12-year-old boys from suburban Oklahoma City and sent them off to summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park. The boys were quite similar in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. None of the boys knew each other at the beginning of the experiment.

The boys were randomly divided into two groups and housed in different areas of the campground. Initially, the groups didn’t know of each other’s existence. They discovered each other only when they began to compete for camp resources, like playing fields or dining halls. Once they discovered each other, they quickly named their groups: Rattlers and Eagles.

So far, the boys’ behavior was entirely predictable. The research question was: How do you change such behavior to reduce us-versus-them attitudes?

The researchers first measured the impact of mere contact. The researchers thought that by getting the boys to mingle – in dining halls or on camp buses, for example – they could overcome negative attitudes and build relationships. The finding: mere contact did not change attitudes for the better. Indeed, when contact was coupled with competition for resources, it increased friction rather than reducing it.

The researchers then moved on to superordinate goals. The two groups had to cooperate to achieve a goal that neither group could achieve on its own. For example, the researchers arranged for the camp bus to “break down”. They also arranged for the water supply to go dry. Rattlers and Eagles had to work together to fix the problems. The finding: cooperation on a larger goal reduced friction and the two groups began to integrate. Rattlers and Eagles actually started to like each other.

The research that the Sherifs started has now grown into a domain known as realistic conflict theory or RCT. The theory suggests that groups will develop resentful attitudes towards other groups, especially when they compete for resources in a zero-sum situation. According to Wikipedia, RCT suggests that “…positive relations can only be restored if superordinate goals are in place.”

The moral of the story is simple: you can’t prevent us-versus-them attitudes but you can fix them. Just find a problem that requires cooperation and collaboration.

 

 

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