Is Donald Trump vilifying the press or playing the press?
Take a recent example: someone leaked a draft memo to the Washington Post suggesting that the government will activate 100,000 National Guard troops to arrest illegal aliens. The Post printed the story and the reactions from both sides were predictable. The left was outraged that the government might do such a thing. The right pitched a hissy fit over leaks.
But here’s another way to interpret the story. The Trump administration wants to rid the country of approximately 11 million illegal aliens. Deporting them all would be a difficult, expensive, and lengthy task. So here’s another way: scare at least some of them into leaving on their own. The National Guard story – though false – undoubtedly started rumors in immigrant neighborhoods that the Feds were about to launch massive sweeps. Better to depart sooner rather than later.
Seen in this light, the Trump administration wins in two ways. First, the story sows fear in immigrant communities and may lead to “self-deportations”. Second, the administration continues to build the narrative that the media promotes fake news and is the enemy of the people.
Another tactic to control the conversation is what academics call availability cascades. We humans estimate how risky something is based on information that’s available to us. An availability cascade makes a cascade of information – about one and only one topic – readily available to us.
The Ebola scare of 2014 provides a good example. Somebody gets sick with a dread disease. The press writes vivid stories about the illness and makes grim images easily available to us. It’s top of mind. Then people push the government to “do something” about the menace. The press writes about that. Then the government actually does something. The press writes about that. Then people protest what the government has done. The press writes about that. Soon, the entire world seems to be chattering about Ebola. If everybody’s talking about it, it must be dangerous.
The Trump administration creates an availability cascade when it lures the press into writing more about Islamic terrorism. The administration has accused the press of underreporting terrorist incidents. In response, the press has written numerous articles pointing out just how many stories they’ve written on terrorist incidents. The net effect? Terrorism is in the headlines every day. Everybody is talking about it. It must be dangerous.
Even fake news can help keep availability cascades in the headlines. The administration makes a far-fetched claim and the press naturally wants to set the record straight. By doing so, the press adds fuel to the availability fire. The story lingers on. As long as the press plays along, the administration will keep creating alternative facts. Think of it as the media equivalent of rope-a-dope.
Trump’s obsession with himself creates another availability cascade. Trump regularly talks about himself and his accomplishments – how smart he is, how many electoral votes he won, and so on. He often repeats himself; the news is no longer new. Yet the press keeps writing about it. Apparently, they want to show how self-obsessed he is. But the practical effect is that Trump dominates the headlines very day. If everybody is chattering about him, he must be very powerful.
Bernard Cohen wrote that, “The press may not be successful … in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.” The Trump administration is using the press to frame the discussion and tell us what to think about. Perhaps it’s time for the press to change the subject.
Let’s say you’re about to give an important speech to a large audience. You’re nervous and your palms start sweating. Which of the following statements is true?
I never really thought about this before I started teaching critical thinking. However, if you had asked me, I would have guessed that the first statement is right. Over the past several years, I’ve switched my position. Today, I think that the second statement is much more likely to be correct.
Each time I teach critical thinking, some students tell me that they’ve seen the light. From now on, they will ignore their emotions and make decisions based solely on logic and critical thinking. They will emulate Mr. Spock on Star Trek. In my opinion, that’s the wrong thing to do.
Our emotions are a source of information. They tell us something. What they tell us is not always clear. Further, it’s not always correct. But they are worth listening to. In fact, I now think of intuition as the body communicating to the brain, through mechanisms like sweaty palms, shallow breathing, shortness of breath, and so on. Our bodies sense our surroundings and communicate information to the brain.
According to Susan David, a professor at Harvard, our emotions can help us clarify our values – but only if we listen to them. In a recent HBR Management Tip of The Day, she writes: “Our emotions are signals that can give us data about what is important to us, but only if we pay attention. Next time you feel emotional at work, take a step back and consider what it’s telling you.” (Literally taking a step back can help you see your options more clearly, too).
She then goes on to explain how emotions can help us understand our core priorities. She suggests that we can’t get to those core priorities solely by thinking – we need to tune in to our emotions. The Heath brothers, in their book, Decisive, also emphasize the need to identify core priorities and offer some tips on how to do it. Between David and the Heaths, you can identify your priorities and learn ways to focus on them.
I’d suggest that you treat your emotions as just another information source. Treat the information that comes through the “emotion channel” just the same as any other information. Evaluate it in the same way as any other piece of information, using the same go-to questions and evaluation processes. Your emotions may be right or they may be wrong. But they’re always worth listening to.
In last year’s NCAA football championship game, Alabama beat Clemson by a score of 45 to 40.
In this year’s NCAA football championship game, Clemson beat Alabama by a score of 35 to 31.
The aggregate score is 76 to 75 in favor of Alabama.
So, which team is more skilled?
To ponder the question, we need to return to Michael Mauboussin’s ideas* about skill and luck – and, especially, his concept of the paradox of skill.
Let’s start with definitions for skill and luck. For Mauboussin, a key question helps us identify skill: Can I lose on purpose? If the answer is yes, then some skill must be involved in the process, whether you’re shooting hoops or playing poker. If the answer is no, then the process is random – it’s a matter of luck.
Most processes – like NCAA football games – involve both skill and luck. How can we sort out the differences between the two? Was Alabama more skilled last year or just luckier? What about Clemson this year?
Mauboussin’s paradox of skill can help us sort this out. Simply put, the paradox states that: “In activities that involve some luck, the improvement of skill makes luck more important…” We have training programs that can improve skills in many competitive activities, including sports, business performance, combat, and perhaps, even investing. As more people take advantage of these programs and average skill levels improve, you might think that luck would become less important in determining outcomes.
Mauboussin says that exactly the opposite is true. The big issue is skill differential and distribution. If a given skill is unevenly distributed in a society, then skill likely determines the outcome. Luck doesn’t have a chance to worm its way in. On the other hand, if skill is broadly and evenly distributed, then even minor fluctuations in luck can change the outcome.
As an example, Mauboussin cites the difference between the winning time and the time for the 20th finisher in the men’s Olympic marathon. In 1932, the difference was 39 minutes. In 2012, it was 7.5 minutes. Clearly, the skill of marathon running has become more evenly distributed over the past 80 years. We have more people with greater skills more evenly distributed than we had in the past. As a result, the marathon has become much more competitive.
Paradoxically, as the marathon has become more competitive, luck plays a greater role. Let’s say that the 1932 winner had the bad luck of stepping in a pothole at Mile 22 and had to limp to the finish line. Because he had so much more skill than the other runners, he might still have won the race. If the 2012 winner stepped in the same pothole, chances are the other (highly skilled) runners would have caught and passed him. He would have lost because of bad luck.
The paradox of skill should teach us some humility and helps to illuminate the illusion of control. We may think we’re successful because we’re skilled and talented and can control the events around us. But oftentimes – especially when skill is evenly distributed – it’s nothing more than an illusion. It’s just plain luck.
And what about Clemson and Alabama? My interpretation is that both teams are perfectly balanced in terms of skills. So the outcome depends almost entirely on luck: a lucky bounce, a stray breeze, a bad call, a slippery turf, and so on. Let’s celebrate two great teams that have separated themselves from the pack but not from each other. Perhaps we should call them Clembama.
* I used several sources for Mauboussin’s ideas. His 2012 book, The Success Equation, is here. In 2012, he also gave a very succinct presentation to the CFA Institute. That paper is here. His HBR article from 2011 is here. In 2014, he gave a lecture as part of the Authors at Google series – you can find the video here. And David Hurst’s very enlightening review of Mauboussin’s book is here.
Here’s a pair of questions raised by Dan Ariely in his book, Predictably Irrational:
Your school age daughter calls you at work and asks you to bring home a red pencil she needs for her homework.
Q1: You find a red pencil in your company’s supply closet. Would you take it home or would you consider that cheating?
Q2: You can’t find any red pencils in the office but you know you can buy one for a quarter at the office supply store around the corner. You don’t have a quarter but you can find one in the petty cash drawer by the coffee machine. Would you take a quarter and buy your daughter a red pencil or would you consider that cheating?
If you’re like Dan Ariely or me or most people, you think it’s OK to take a pencil from the supply closet but you would never take a quarter from the petty cash drawer.
The value involved is the same in both cases, so why do we think one scenario is OK and the other is not? According to Ariely, it’s about cash. We tend not to cheat when cash is involved. We know it’s wrong to take money. We can’t rationalize the action to ourselves.
The farther we get from cash, however, the easier it is to rationalize cheating. Most of us wouldn’t steal money from a stranger. But we might shade things a bit on our tax returns and we don’t feel too badly about inflating our losses on insurance claims. Ariely concludes that, “When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash.”
So does this mean that corruption is about to skyrocket in Sweden?
For the past several decades, Sweden has been moving toward a cashless society. Banks began charging for checks about 30 years ago. Rather than writing checks, people found it easier and less expensive to transfer money from one account to another, initially by fax, then online, and now by mobile devices like smartphones. ATMs are being phased out. By one estimate, only 900 of the 1,600 branch banks in the country even bother to keep cash on hand.
So how do Swedes pay for things? With blips and chips. You can pay the parking meter with your smart phone. You can transfer money from one account to another with an app called Swish. You can give money to a beggar by swiping a card or tapping a phone. Even Swedish churches use apps instead of collection plates.
The Swedish transition to a cashless society accelerated in September 2009, after the Västberga heist. Thieves in a stolen helicopter smashed through the skylight of a bank-processing center and made off with about $6.5 million in cash. The heist has been romanticized endlessly in Sweden. But its biggest impact was to erode trust in cash. If cash could be stolen so easily – and it was never recovered – why bother with cash? (I happened to walk by the Västberga center, on my way to work, about half an hour before the attack. Yikes!)
In addition to theft, cash is involved with a whole host of nefarious activities – ranging from drugs to weapons to prostitution to payments to illegal aliens. So why not do away with it? Dan Ariely’s data may give us pause – the farther we get from cash, the more likely we are to cheat.
So is Sweden growing more corrupt? At least one estimate suggests, “…cases of electronic fraud have more than doubled in the past decade….” Before giving up cash altogether, the Swedish government should take some baseline measures of corruption and cheating and then monitor them over time. It may turn out that going cashless is much more expensive than the occasional bank heist.
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.
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.