Wednesday, March 20, 2013

So don't believe me

If you wish to persuade others, you must first understand where they are. Do they even know who you are? Do they understand the subject you have an opinion about? Do they speak your language? Do they understand your jargon?

On and on. One important question to ask: what does my listener/reader believe about the topic? You might be able to persuade them with logic, but you'll have a hard time if your viewpoint violates a belief they have or is inconsistent with their everyday knowledge.

This is why people on different sides of the political aisle never get anywhere: each side starts with long-held beliefs that color their perception of arguments. Think about these subjects: climate change, biological evolution, nuclear power, genetically modified crops, exposure to synthetic chemicals, concealed carry of guns, vaccines, video games, fracking, organic foods, and sex education.

It's pretty obvious with these hot button topics that if you or your organization want to persuade people you'll be going up against some strongly held beliefs. But what about more innocuous subjects? What do people think about consultants, automatic subscription renewals, credit cards, borrowing money, charity, customer service, big banks, rebates, and on and on?

This tendency is known as belief bias. This has been studied endlessly. One recent study helps explain the political divide in our country.

Here are three examples:

  1. We tend to believe that a good experience is more enjoyable when it follows a bad experience. Not always so.
  2. We tend to believe that more choice is better. Research proves otherwise.
  3. We believe that new experiences give us more pleasure than things we know. Not always.

You'll run into variations of this. One is "belief perseverance," which occurs when someone clings to a belief despite all the evidence. Another is "confirmation bias," the name for someone finding only evidence that supports his belief.

If nothing else, this might save you from a pointless argument at the dinner table. At best, it may help you craft your next op-ed or speech.

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