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Information Avoidance and Persuasion

Don’t tell me.

The 1989 Tour de France was decided in the last stage, a 15.2 mile time trial into Paris. The leader, Laurent Fignon, held a fifty second advantage over Greg LeMond. Both riders were strong time trialers. To make up fifty seconds in such a short race seemed impossible. Most observers assumed that Fignon would hold his lead and win the overall title.

In most time trials, coaches radio the riders to inform them of their speed, splits, and competitive position. In this final time trial, however, LeMond turned off his radio. He didn’t want to know. He feared that, if he knew too much, he might ease up. Instead, he raced flat out for the entire distance, averaging 33.9 miles per hour, a record at the time. In a stunning finish, LeMond gained 58 seconds on Fignon and won the race by a scant eight seconds. (Here’s a terrific video recap of the final stage).

LeMond’s strategy is today known as information avoidance. He chose not to accept information that he knew was freely available to him. LeMond knew that he might be distracted by the information. He chose instead to focus solely on his own performance – the only variable that he could control.

While information avoidance worked for LeMond, the strategy often yields suboptimal outcomes. We choose not to know something and the not knowing creates health hazards, financial obstacles, and a series of unfortunate events. Here are some examples.

  • In a study of 7,000 employees at a large non-profit organization, Giulio Zanella and Ritesh Banerjee found that women are less likely to get a mammogram when one of their co-workers is diagnosed with breast cancer. The mammogram rate dropped by approximately eight percent and the effect lasted for at least two years. (Click here).
  • Amanda Ganguly and Josh Tasoff offered students tests to determine if they carried the herpes simplex virus. Though the tests were free and readily available, about five percent of the students refused the test for the HSV1 form of the virus. Fifteen percent refused the test for the HSV2 form of the virus, which is widely regarded as the “nastier” version. In other words, the scarier the disease, the more likely people are to avoid information about it. (Click here).
  • Marianne Andries and Valentin Haddad investigated similar effects in financial decisions. They found that “…information averse investors observe the value of their portfolios infrequently; inattention is more pronounced …in periods of low or volatile stock prices.” Again, the scarier the situation, the less likely people are to search for information about it. (Click here).
  • Russell Golman, David Hagmann, and George Loewenstein also investigated economic decision making and identified five information avoidance techniques: 1) physical avoidance; 2) inattention; 3) biased interpretation; 4) forgetting; 5) self-handicapping. (Click here).

In some ways, information avoidance is the flip side of the confirmation bias. We accept information that confirms our beliefs and avoid information that doesn’t. But there seems to be more to avoidance than simply the desire to avoid disconfirming information. Other contributors include:

  • Focus and fatalism – why learn something that we can do nothing about? I suspect that this was LeMond’s motivation. He couldn’t do anything about the information, so why receive it? Instead he focused on what he could do.
  • Anxiety – why learn something that will simply make us anxious? The scarier it is, the more anxious we’ll be. We’ve all put off visits to the doctor because we just don’t want to know.
  • Ego threat – why learn something that will shake our confidence in our own abilities? It seems, for instance, that poor teachers are less likely to pay attention to student evaluations than are good teachers.

Information avoidance can also teach us about persuasion. If we want to persuade people to change their opinion about something, making it scarier is probably self-defeating. People will be more likely to avoid the information rather than seeking it out. Similarly, bombarding people with more and more information is likely to be counter-productive. People under bombardment become defensive rather than open-minded.

As Aristotle noted, persuasion consists of three facets: 1) ethos (credibility); 2) pathos (emotional connection); 3) logos (logic and information). Today, we often seek to persuade with logos – information and logic. But Aristotle taught that logos is the least persuasive facet. We typically use logos to justify a decision rather than to make a decision. Ethos and pathos are much more influential in making the decision. The recent research on information avoidance suggests that we’ll persuade more people with ethos and pathos than we ever will with logos. Aristotle was right.

Greg LeMond’s example shows that information avoidance can provide important benefits. But, as we develop our communication strategies, let’s keep the downsides in mind. We need to package our arguments in ways that will reduce information avoidance and lead to a healthier exchange of ideas.

Inventing Your Argument

Cicero – Canon Crafter

Aristotle defined rhetoric as the ability to “see the available means of persuasion”. In other words, what will it take to persuade the audience to agree with your proposal? It may be an eloquent speech. It may be a brief video. It may be a nice bouquet of flowers. We aim to understand the dynamics of the situation and select the best available means of gaining agreement. To find the best persuasive approach, Cicero said that we need to consider five principles: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. (Click here for brief definitions of each).

Many books on rhetoric present Cicero’s five canons rather formally. They may seem forbidding and perhaps somewhat outdated. But the canons are actually quite useful in finding the best available means of persuasion. To understand the canons and use them effectively, it helps to think of the questions each canon raises.

Let’s begin with the first canon: invention. We seek to invent the most persuasive argument for a given audience. Here are the questions to consider.

  • What do you want the audience to do? This surprisingly simple question often goes unanswered. We may express our opinions without a specific goal in mind. As the Cheshire cat said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will lead you there.” Your goal may be to convince the audience to vote for a given candidate or buy a certain product. The more specific the goal, the more persuasive the presentation. (Some inexperienced presenters seem to have a goal of showing the audience how smart they are. That’s usually not persuasive.)
  • Are you a credible witness? Why would the audience trust you? If you have relevant experience, make sure the audience knows about it. You can state this yourself or ask someone to introduce you. (They can brag about your accomplishments better than you can). If you don’t have relevant experience, the audience may find you untrustworthy. In this case, you’ll need to enhance your credibility by citing people and sources that your audience respects.
  • What are the benefits? To whom do they accrue? – Benefits may fall in several different categories. What are the benefits to individuals in the audience? What are the benefits to their families? To their companies? Think of the hierarchy of benefits and identify the most important ones. Make sure they’re highlighted throughout the presentation.
  • Who will make the decision? What are their interests? – Emphasize the benefits to those who are making the decision. Early in my career, I sold word processing equipment that provided many benefits to clerical workers. But clerical workers didn’t make the buying decision. Financial managers did. I needed to state benefits for managers rather than for secretaries.
  • How does the audience feel about the competition? – If the audience respects and admires the competition, it’s foolish to launch nasty zingers against them. Doing so simply diminishes your credibility. Clearly state your admiration for the competition, then identify how your solution is different and what benefits that produces.
  • How can you convince the audience that you’re one of them? – You want your audience to think you are like them in some regard. This could be your experience, you manner of speaking, your vocabulary, your age, or even how you’re dressed. Don’t ever give the impression that you’re speaking down to your audience. Tip: you don’t need to dress like the audience; they may sense that you’re inauthentic. You do need to dress like the audience expects you to dress.
  • What are the audience’s commonplaces? How can you frame your argument to fit their commonplaces? – A commonplace, in this sense, is a set of commonly held beliefs. A conservative audience’s commonplace might be: “We should take steps to enhance liberty.” A liberal audience’s commonplace might be “We should take steps to enhance justice.” You should always know your audience’s commonplaces and – to the extent possible – adapt your argument to fit them.
  • What stories can you tell? – Audiences react much better to stories than to abstract concepts. Stories are memorable and touch on emotions. They illustrate ideas simply and clearly. Personal stories are the best but, if you don’t have a personal story to share, feel free to make up a story that illustrates your key points.

Remember that you’re just trying to invent the argument at this point. There are many more questions to ask round out a persuasive argument. If you can answer these questions, however, you can greatly enhance your chances of success.

Finding A Balance In A Partisan World

Burst Your Bubble

In my Persuasion class, I teach that the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. By acknowledging common ground – or common objectives – we show that we respect the other side, even if we disagree. This helps us build trust, which ultimately is the basis of all persuasion.

In today’s world of hyper-partisanship and angry denunciations, how do we begin by agreeing? How do we find points of common interest? The simple answer is that we begin by understanding the other side’s perspective. We read articles and authors that we disagree with. (This may be good for our mental health a well as our political wellbeing).

But trolls are everywhere – on both the left and the right. How do we find conscientious authors and sources that can help us understand a worldview and not just an angry index of insults? Here are some resources:

Bridge-The-Divide.com – this website has two CEO’s – a West Virginia Republican and a California Democrat. They aim to “understand each other’s point of view without compromising their own values.” The organization seems small but promising and has already recruited ambassadors in 22 countries. You might want to apply.

Cortico.ai – where bridge-the-divide.com relies on ambassadors, Cortico.ai focuses more on artificial intelligence and media analytics. They aim to “analyze the public sphere” and “give voice to the common ground”. Though small, they partner with MIT’s Media Lab and are backed by Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, so they may have some staying power.

Renewing The Center – a service of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, this service publishes a newsletter that seeks to explain why traditional left/right distinctions matter less than they used to.

The Guardian/Burst Your Bubble – this English newspaper tilts to the left but publishes a “Burst Your Bubble” feature every week. The editors select interesting conservative articles and videos – usually about a given topic – succinctly summarize the key ideas and explain why you should read them. For recent examples, click here and here.

New York Times/Right and Left – similar to Burst Your Bubble (but not as pithy), The New York Times regularly surveys how authors on the left and right treat a given topic. For recent examples, click here and here.

These five sources provide a pretty good starting point for finding a balance in a partisan world. But I hope that there are more. If you know of others, please let me know and I’ll update the list.

How To Save Democracy

Back off! I know rhetoric.

Most historians would agree that the arts and sciences of persuasion – also known as rhetoric – originated with the Greeks approximately 2,500 years ago. Why there? Why not the Egyptians or the Phoenicians or the Chinese? And why then? What was going on in Greece that necessitated new rules for communication?

The simple answer is a single word: democracy. The Greeks invented democracy. For the first time in the history of the world, people needed to persuade each other without force or violence. So the Greeks had to invent rhetoric.

Prior to democracy, people didn’t need to disagree in any organized way. We simply followed the leader. We agreed with the monarch. We converted to the emperor’s religion. We believed in the gods that the priests proclaimed. If we disagreed, we were ignored or banished or killed. Simple enough.

With the advent of democracy, public life grew messy. We could no longer say, “You will believe this because the emperor believes it.” Rather, we had to persuade. The basic argument was simple, “You should believe this because it provides advantages.” We needed rules and pointers for making such arguments successfully. Socrates and Aristotle (and many others) rose to the challenge and invented rhetoric.

Democracy, then, is about disagreement. We recognize that we will disagree. Indeed, we recognize that we should disagree. The trick is to disagree without anger or violence. We seek to persuade, not to subdue. In fact, here’s a simple test of how democratic a society is:

What proportion of the population agrees with the following statement?

“Of course, we’re going to disagree. But we’ve agreed to resolve our disagreements without violence.”

It seems like a simple test. But we overlook it at our peril. Societies that can’t pass this test (and many can’t) are forever doomed to civil strife, violence, disruption, and dysfunction.

The chief function of rhetoric is to teach us to argue without anger. The fundamental questions of rhetoric pervade both our public and private lives. How can I persuade someone to see a different perspective? How can I persuade someone to agree with me? How can we forge a common vision?

Up through the 19th century, educated people were well versed in rhetoric. All institutions of higher education taught the trivium, which consisted of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Having mastered the trivium, students could progress to the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium provided the platform upon which everything else rested.

In the 20th century, we saw the rise of mass communications, government sponsored propaganda, widespread public relations campaigns, and social media. Ironically, we also decided that we no longer needed to teach rhetoric. We considered it manipulative. To insult an idea, we called it “empty rhetoric”.

But rhetoric also helps us defend ourselves against mass manipulation, which flourished in the 20th century and continues to flourish today. (Indeed, in the 21st century, we seem to want to hone it to an even finer point). We sacrificed our defenses at the very moment that manipulation surged forward. Having no defenses, we became angrier and less tolerant.

What to do? The first step is to revive the arts of persuasion and critical thinking. Essentially, we need to revive the trivium. By doing so, we’ll be better able to argue without anger and to withstand the effects of mass manipulation. Reviving rhetoric won’t solve the world’s problems. But it will give us a tool to resolve problems – without violence and without anger.

Arguing Without Anger

Can we talk?

Red people and blue people are at it again. Neither side seems to accept that the other side consists of real people with real ideas that are worth listening to. Debate is out. Contempt is in.

As a result, our nation is highly polarized.  To work our way out of the current stalemate, we need to listen closely and speak wisely. We need to debate effectively rather than arguing angrily. Here are some tips:

It’s not about winning, it’s about winning over – too often we talk about winning an argument. But defeating an opponent is not the same as winning him over to your side. Aim for agreement, not a crushing blow.

It’s not about values – our values are deeply held. We don’t change them easily. You’re not going to convert a red person into a blue person or vice-versa. Aim to change their minds, not their values.

Stick to the future tense – the only reason to argue in the past tense is to assign blame. That’s useful in a court of law but not in the court of public opinion. Stick to the future tense, where you can present choices and options. That’s where you can change minds. (Tip: don’t ever argue with a loved one in the past tense. Even if you win, you lose.)

The best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing – the other side wants to know that you take them seriously. If you immediately dismiss everything they say, you’ll never persuade them. Start by finding points of agreement. Even if you’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, you can find something to agree to.

Don’t fall for the anger mongers – both red and blue commentators prey on our pride to sell anger. They say things like, “The other side hates you. They think you’re dumb. They think they’re superior to you.” The technique is known as attributed belittlement and it’s the oldest trick in the book. Don’t fall for it.

Don’t fall into the hypocrisy trap – both red and blue analysts are willing to spin for their own advantage. Don’t assume that one side is hypocritical while the other side is innocent.

Beware of demonizing words – it’s easy to use positive words for one side and demonizing words for the other side. For example: “We’re proud. They’re arrogant.” “We’re smart. They’re sneaky.” It’s another old trick. Don’t fall for it.

Show some respect – just because people disagree with you is no reason to treat them with contempt. They have their reasons. Show some respect even if you disagree.

Be skeptical – the problems we’re facing as a nation are exceptionally complex. Anyone who claims to have a simple solution is lying.

Burst your bubble – open yourself up to sources you disagree with. Talk with people on the other side. We all live in reality bubbles. Time to break out.

Give up TV — talking heads, both red and blue, want to tell you what to think. Reading your own sources can help you learn how to think.

Aim for the persuadable – you’ll never convince some people. Don’t waste your breath. Talk with open-minded people who describe themselves as moderates. How can you tell they’re open-minded? They show respect, don’t belittle, agree before disagreeing, and are skeptical of both sides.

Engage in arguments – find people who know how to argue without anger. Argue with them. If they’re red, take a blue position. If they’re blue, take a red position. Practice the art of arguing. You’re going to need it.

Remember that the only thing worse than arguing is not arguing – We know how to argue. Now we need to learn to argue without anger. Our future may depend on it.

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