Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What's going on in the brains of your audience

Gentlemen, start your PowerPoints.
Not a whole lot.

They're looking at you or your words, and you've assembled some dazzling arguments for your position, but when you've had your say you're worse off than before.

That's because confirmation bias is firmly in control. Researchers who have studied this know that we don't let mere arguments or evidence upset our deeply held beliefs. In fact, arguments to the contrary tend to make our beliefs stronger.

People are funny.

Is your audience even thinking? Apparently not, Steve Denning writes. He's an author, consultant and knowledge management guru. He refers to a study at Emory University:
Drew Westen and his team at Emory University conducted Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scans on fifteen "strong Republicans" and fifteen "strong Democrats" in the course of the 2004 presidential campaign while they were reviewing blatantly self-contradictory statements by the two candidates, George W. Bush and John Kerry. As we would expect from earlier studies of the confirmation bias, the Democrats found ways to reconcile Kerry’s inconsistencies and became even more strongly Democrat, while the Republicans had no difficulty explaining away George W. Bush’s self-contradictions so as to become even more fervently Republican.
But the fRMI brain scans showed something new. While the participants were considering the inconsistent statements, the part of the brain associated with reasoning revealed no signs of activity at all. "We did not see," said Westen, "any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts."
But there was something even more startling. 
Once the participants had seen a way to interpret contradictory statements as supporting their original position, the part of the brain involved in reward and pleasure became active, and the conclusion was "massively reinforced . . . with the elimination of negative emotional states and the activation of positive ones."
In the end you'll need to tap into their emotions, and there are ways to do this, which I'll explore in another post.

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