Cognitive Dissonance, or why it’s so hard to persuade people with facts

[Note: I shared this mental model with my email subscribers on Feb 5, 2017. If you want to receive a new mental model every week, join the club.]

Charlie Munger Quote on Cognitive Dissonance

Why is it so hard to persuade people with facts?

You feel like their argument stands on three key pillars, and you’ve destroyed all of them with hard data. Still, it remains standing. In fact, they’ve dug their heels in even more!

Why does being corrected trigger feelings of anger and dismay?
Short answer: Cognitive dissonance.

 

What it is:

Why does cognitive dissonance happen? As this article says, there are two main reasons:

  • Our brains don’t store facts as standalone pieces of information. We remember data points as a network of interrelated “facts”. So, when one of them is called into question, it feels like the entire network of beliefs is threatened. Loss aversion kicks in.
  • When an argument threatens your world view, self concept, or your very identity, facts can even backfire. You become more convinced of your erroneous stand, when you hear you’re wrong.

Strange things happen when you think your identity is attacked.

See the GMO study in the article above, or this interesting example of cognitive dissonance from the ever-provocative Scott Adams.

And cognitive dissonance isn’t triggered only in an argument. In any setback, you choose the interpretation most favorable to your self esteem. Just ask Aesop:

The Fox & the Grapes - Cognitive Dissonance

Rules to follow:

So, what do you do? Or, as the title of this section says, how do you convince someone when facts fail?

  1. First, articulate the opposite position accurately. Acknowledge that you understand why someone could hold that opinion.
  2. Stick to the facts, and layer them up gradually. First, the raw information. Then, a second order inference. Agree on both. Only then, bring up your controversial conclusion.
  3. Keep emotions out. Discuss, don’t attack. No absurd absolutes. No ad hominem. And definitely no ad Hitlerum.
  4. Don’t activate identity when arguing a point. Show how changing facts doesn’t necessarily mean changing world-views.

If you and your stubborn interlocutor are a little geeky, try the Double Crux method. [I’m still trying to find a fellow geek I disagree with, to try this.]

Further Reading:

 

Linked to: Confirmation Bias

Filed Under: Psychology & Human Behavior

Related Posts:

The focusing illusion, or why “it’s not really as important as you think it is”

[Note: I shared this mental model with my email subscribers on Jan 29, 2017. If you want to receive a new mental model every week, join the club.]

Focusing Illusion Quote

What it is:

Have you been subjected to this nifty party trick? A person at the party claims to be able to read your psychology from manipulating your hand.

He presses your thumb backward, and says, “Hmm, you look like you’re often stubborn.” You’re surprised – it is true!

Later, you cross paths again. This time, he presses the thumb back and says, “You’re a surprisingly flexible person.” And that seems true too. You can think of several instances when you demonstrated surprising flexibility.

 

So which is it? Probably neither. You, my friend, have been subjected to the focusing illusion.

Just like the respondents to a question, “Are you adventurous?” in a research study. 97% said “yes”.

When you think of or focus on something, your subconscious assumes it’s important. After all, why would you think about it otherwise?

It’s recursive logic, with a healthy dollop of confirmation bias.

You focus on it, therefore it’s worth focusing on.

 

Examples in business (and elsewhere):

What you focus on seems important.

  • When you’re fundraising, it seems like make-or-break for your startup. But it isn’t. Money from customers, not investors, will drive success for you. If you’re building something useful, you’ll find a way.
  • You commit a silly mistake at work on Friday evening, and then you’re in torment all weekend. But your boss – he barely notices it on Monday morning. It wasn’t that important after all.
  • “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Fading movie stars crave it – at least it gives them presumed importance in the public’s eyes.

What you focus on seems true.

  • The positive test: In deciding whether a possibility is correct, we look for hits rather than misses. Just like the adventurous respondents in the survey above, we can be flexible or stubborn. It depends on the question. This kind of one-sided question (e.g., asking only whether you’re dissatisfied about a situation), is called a positive test. Beware when you hear such a question – maybe your counterpart wants to send you down a specific line of thought.
  • Medical students and their diseases: It’s common for medical students to feel they’ve contracted the latest disease they’ve heard about. They read that pneumonia produces pain in a particular place, concentrate attention on it, and get alarmed at the slightest sensation. This is so common, there’s an aphorism for it in medicine:

“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.”

  • If 2016’s Brexit and US presidential campaigns have taught us anything, it’s this: Say anything often enough, and people will think it’s true.

What you focus on seems causal.

  • Offer people a lot of money to do something, and they’ll do it for free. The listener automatically assumes the task is very important to you. (That’s why you’re willing to pay so much!). Try this the next time you’re trying to jump ahead in line.
  • The most visible action is assumed to be causal: When a company misses its projections, newspapers attribute it to a recent government announcement. Or a tepid product launch to a bad ad campaign.

 

Rules to follow:

How do we save ourselves from the focusing illusion?

  1. Don’t make big decisions in the heat of the moment. It’s quite likely you’re overestimating the importance of a couple of factors. Calm down, sleep on it, and make the decision later.
  2. Beware of one-sided questions. It’s quite likely that your counterpart is priming you towards an answer they prefer.
  3. Whenever you’re making a big decision, do a premortemMake sure to think about what could go wrong, and protect against it.
  4. In summary, remember Kahneman’s adage: Nothing is as important as you think it is when you’re thinking about it.

Further Reading:

 

Linked to: Confirmation Bias, Availability Heuristic

Filed Under: Psychology & Human Behavior

Related Posts: