1: Imagine we are standing in line at the grocery store.
“Scientists Discover 4,000-Year-Old Television Set in Egyptian Pyramid,” reads the tabloid headline on the magazine rack beside us.
We shake our heads and smile. Seriously? We question the reliability of the story. Not our belief as to when television was first invented.
“When we think we know something to be objective truth, our immediate reaction to news indicating the opposite is to jump to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with the source,” Stephen Denning writes in The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative.
This way of thinking is what we call confirmation bias. And, in many instances, it serves us well.
2: When we are attempting to persuade a skeptical, cynical, or hostile audience, however, confirmation bias is our enemy.
The traditional method of persuasion is to “give people reasons and they will do what [we] say,” Stephen notes. “The approach has a long lineage going back to ancient Greece. It was the pride and joy of intellectual giants like Plato, Descartes, and Kant. The essence of this approach: ‘To obtain the best results, emotion should be kept out: rational processing must be unencumbered by passion.'”
The only problem with this approach? It doesn’t work.
“If a leader offers reasons at the outset of a communication to such an audience, the maneuver will likely activate the confirmation bias and the reasons for change will be reinterpreted as reasons not to change,” Stephen writes. “The audience becomes even more deeply dug into its current position.”
The bottom line: “Research shows that when people are presented with reasons to change their behavior in a fundamental way, the confirmation bias kicks in,” Stephen explains. “The emotional brain tends to dismiss or reinterpret reasons for change so that they present no threat to preexisting points of view.”
Which is what the results showed in a study led by psychologist Drew Westen and his team at Emory University. During the 2004 presidential election, they conducted fMRI brain scans on fifteen voters who identified as strong Republicans and fifteen who identified as strong Democrats. They had the participants review blatantly self-contradictory statements by the two candidates, George W. Bush and John Kerry.
The results? “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.”
What were the most surprising results?
The research showed: “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.'”
Remember that “involuntary smile that sprang to our lips when we read the headline about the 4,000-year-old TV in the Egyptian pyramids?” Stephen asks. Our brains were providing “a psychic reward for having been able to stick to its original position. The emotional reaction, not our thinking mind, was causing us to be even more passionately attached to our original belief.”
3: Understanding this reality, what is our best strategy to persuade people to change their behavior or follow a new course?
The business world is “almost totally focused on analysis and abstractions,” Stephen writes in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling. “The virtues of sharpness, rigor, clarity, explicitness, and crispness are everywhere celebrated.”
As leaders, we’ve been taught to show up with a certain mindset: “Analysis is what drives business thinking,” Stephen notes. “It seemingly cuts through the fog of myth, gossip, and speculation to get to the hard facts. It purports to go wherever the observations and premises and conclusions take it, undistorted by the hopes or fears of the analyst. Its strength lies in its objectivity, its impersonality, its heartlessness.”
Our tendency can be both positive and negative.
“Analysis might excite the mind, but it hardly offers a route to the heart. And that’s where we must go if we are to motivate people not only to take action but to do so with energy and enthusiasm,” he writes.
“Leadership involves inspiring people to act in unfamiliar and often unwelcome ways. Mind-numbing cascades of numbers or daze-inducing PowerPoint slides won’t achieve this goal. Even logical arguments for making the needed changes usually won’t do the trick.”
What does work? Storytelling.
It’s not storytelling or analysis. It’s both. Because “storytelling can translate those dry and abstract numbers into compelling pictures of a leader’s goals.”
But it’s not just any story. It’s a specific kind of story. And that’s what we will be exploring this week.
Action: The next time I want to persuade someone or a group of people, experiment with telling a story rather than just presenting the reasons for the change.
Reflection: Pay attention to what happens. What do I learn?