How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded - Think Like a Freak - Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

Think Like a Freak - Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner (2014)

Chapter 8. How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded

Anyone willing to think like a Freak will occasionally end up on the sharp end of someone else’s stick.

Perhaps you’ll raise an uncomfortable question, challenge an orthodoxy, or simply touch upon a subject that should have been left untouched. As a result, people may call you names. They may accuse you of consorting with witches or communists or even economists. You may be heading toward a bruising fight. What happens next?

Our best advice would be to simply smile and change the subject. As hard as it is to think creatively about problems and come up with solutions, in our experience it is even harder to persuade people who do not wish to be persuaded.

But if you are hell-bent on persuading someone, or if your back is truly against the wall, you might as well give it your best shot. Though we try to avoid fights, we have gotten into a few, and we’ve learned some things along the way.

First, understand how hard persuasion will be—and why.

The vast majority of climate scientists believe the world is getting hotter, due in part to human activity, and that global warming carries a significant risk. But the American public is far less concerned. Why?

A group of researchers called the Cultural Cognition Project, made up primarily of legal scholars and psychologists, tried to answer that question.

The CCP’s general mission is to determine how the public forms its views on touchy subjects like gun laws, nanotechnology, and date rape. In the case of global warming, CCP began with the possible explanation that the public just doesn’t think climate scientists know what they’re talking about.

But that explanation didn’t fit very well. A 2009 Pew poll shows that scientists in the United States are extremely well regarded, with 84 percent of respondents calling their effect on society “mostly positive.” And since scientists have thought long and hard about global warming, collecting and analyzing data, they would seem to be in a good position to know the facts.

So maybe ignorance is the answer. Perhaps the people who aren’t worried about climate change simply “aren’t smart enough,” as one CCP researcher posited, “they’re not educated enough, they don’t understand the facts like the scientists do.” This explanation looked more promising. The same Pew poll found that 85 percent of scientists believe the “public does not know very much about science” and that this is a “major problem.”

To determine if scientific ignorance could explain the public’s lack of concern, the CCP ran its own survey. It began with questions to test each respondent’s scientific and numerical literacy.

Here are some of the numerical questions:

1. Imagine that we roll a fair, six-sided die 1,000 times. (That would mean that we roll one die from a pair of dice.) Out of 1,000 rolls, how many times do you think the die would come up as an even number?

2. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

And here are a few of the science questions:

1. True or false: The center of the earth is very hot.

2. True or false: It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy.

3. True or false: Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.*

After the quiz, respondents were asked another set of questions, including this one:

How much risk do you believe climate change poses to human health, safety, or prosperity?

How would you predict the survey turned out? Wouldn’t you expect that people with a better grip on math and science were more likely to appreciate the threat of climate change?

Yes, that is what the CCP researchers expected too. But that’s not what happened. “On the whole,” the researchers concluded, “the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones.”

How could this be? Digging deeper, the CCP researchers found another surprise in the data. People who did well on the math and science quiz were more likely to hold an extreme view of climate change in one direction or another—that is, to consider it either gravely dangerous or wildly overblown.

This seems odd, doesn’t it? People with higher science and math scores are presumably better educated, and we all know that education creates enlightened, moderate people, not extremists—don’t we? Not necessarily. Terrorists, for example, tend to be significantly better educated than their non-terrorist peers. As the CCP researchers discovered, so do climate-change extremists.

How can this be explained?

One reason may be that smart people simply have more experience with feeling they are right, and therefore have greater confidence in their knowledge, whatever side of an issue they’re on. But being confident you are right is not the same as being right. Think back to what Philip Tetlock, who studies the predictive ability of political pundits, found to be a sure sign of a bad predictor: dogmatism.

Climate change may also be one of those topics that most people just don’t think about very much, or very hard. This is understandable. The year-to-year fluctuations in climate can swamp the subtler long-term trends; the changes will happen over decades or centuries. People are too busy with everyday life to wrestle with something so complex and uncertain. And so, based on their emotion or instinct, and perhaps a reaction to a bit of information gleaned long ago, people chose a position and stuck with it.

When someone is heavily invested in his or her opinion, it is inevitably hard to change the person’s mind. So you might think it would be pretty easy to change the minds of people who haven’t thought very hard about an issue. But we’ve seen no evidence of this. Even on a topic that people don’t care much about, it can be hard to get their attention long enough to prompt a change.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, pioneers of the “nudge” movement, recognized this dilemma. Rather than try to persuade people of the worthiness of a goal—whether it’s conserving energy or eating better or saving more for retirement—it’s more productive to essentially trick people with subtle cues or new default settings. Trying to keep a public men’s room clean? Sure, go ahead and put up signs urging people to pee neatly—or, better, paint a housefly on the urinal and watch the male instinct for target practice take over.

So what does all this mean if you desperately want to persuade someone who doesn’t want to be persuaded?

The first step is to appreciate that your opponent’s opinion is likely based less on fact and logic than on ideology and herd thinking. If you were to suggest this to his face, he would of course deny it. He is operating from a set of biases he cannot even see. As the behavioral sage Daniel Kahneman has written: “[W]e can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” Few of us are immune to this blind spot. That goes for you, and that goes for the two of us as well. And so, as the basketball legend-cum-philosopher Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once put it, “It’s easier to jump out of a plane—hopefully with a parachute—than it is to change your mind about an opinion.”

Okay, so how can you build an argument that might actually change a few minds?

It’s not me; it’s you.

Whenever you set out to persuade someone, remember that you are merely the producer of the argument. The consumer has the only vote that counts. Your argument may be factually indisputable and logically airtight but if it doesn’t resonate for the recipient, you won’t get anywhere. U.S. Congress recently funded a national, multiyear media campaign to discourage young people from using drugs. It was created by a storied ad agency and promoted by a top-tier PR firm, at a cost of nearly $1 billion. So how much do you think the campaign cut youth drug use—10 percent? Twenty? Fifty? Here’s what the American Journal of Public Health found: “Most analyses showed no effects from the campaign” and there was in fact “some evidence that the campaign had pro-marijuana effects.”

Don’t pretend your argument is perfect.

Show us a “perfect” solution and we’ll show you our pet unicorn. If you make an argument that promises all benefits and no costs, your opponent will never buy it—nor should he. Panaceas are almost nonexistent. If you paper over the shortcomings of your plan, that only gives your opponent reason to doubt the rest of it.

Let’s say you’ve become a head-over-heels advocate for a new technology you think will change the world. Your argument goes like this:

The era of the self-driving car—a.k.a. the driverless car, or autonomous vehicle—is just around the corner, and we should embrace it as vigorously as possible. It will save millions of lives and improve just about every facet of our society and economy.

You could go on and on. You could talk about how the toughest challenge—the technology itself—has largely been conquered. Nearly every major automaker in the world, as well as Google, has successfully tested cars that use an onboard computer, GPS, cameras, radar, laser scanners, and actuators to do everything a human driver can do—but better. And since roughly 90 percent of the world’s 1.2 million traffic deaths each year—yes, 1.2 million deaths, every year!—are the result of driver error, the driverless car may be one of the biggest lifesavers in recent history. Unlike humans, a driverless car won’t drive drowsy or drunk, or while texting or applying mascara; it won’t change lanes while putting ketchup on french fries or turn around to smack its kids in the backseat.

Google has already driven its fleet of autonomous cars more than 500,000 miles on real roads throughout the United States without causing an accident.* But safety isn’t the only benefit. Elderly and handicapped people wouldn’t have to drive themselves to the doctor (or, if they prefer, to the beach). Parents wouldn’t have to worry about their reckless teenagers getting behind the wheel. People could drink without hesitation when they go out at night—good news for restaurants, bars, and the alcohol industry. Since a driverless car can flow through traffic more efficiently, road congestion and pollution would likely fall. And if driverless cars could be summoned to pick us up or drop us off, we’d no longer need to park at our destination, freeing up millions of acres of prime real estate. In many U.S. cities, 30 to 40 percent of the downtown surface area is devoted to parking.

Well, that all sounds pretty perfect, doesn’t it?

But of course no new technology is perfect, especially something as vast as a driverless-car revolution. So if you want your argument to be taken seriously, you’d do well to admit the potential downsides.

For starters, the technology may be miraculous but it is still in the experimental phase and may never be as good as promised. True, the sensors on a driverless car can easily distinguish a pedestrian from a tree, but there are many other issues to surmount. Google’s engineers concede this: “[W]e’ll need to master snow-covered roadways, interpret temporary construction signals and handle other tricky situations that many drivers encounter.”

There will be countless legal, liability, and practical roadblocks, including the fact that many people may never trust a computer to drive them or their loved ones.

And what about all the people who drive for a living? Nearly 3 percent of the U.S. workforce—about 3.6 million people—feed their families by driving taxis, ambulances, buses, delivery trucks, tractor-trailers, and other vehicles. What are they supposed to do when this new technology obliterates their livelihood?

What else might go wrong in a driverless future? It’s hard to say. The future, as we have noted, is nearly impossible to predict. This doesn’t stop a lot of policymakers and technologists from pretending otherwise. They constantly ask us to assume that their latest projects—whether a piece of legislation or a piece of software—will perform exactly as it was drawn up. It rarely does. So if you want your argument to be truly persuasive, it’s a good idea to acknowledge not only the known flaws but the potential for unintended consequences. For instance:

As the hassle and cost of driving fall, will we use driverless cars so much that they produce even more congestion and pollution?

With drunk driving no longer a worry, will we see a worldwide deluge of binge drinking?

Wouldn’t a fleet of computer-controlled cars be vulnerable to hacking, and what happens when some cyber-terrorist steers every vehicle west of the Mississippi into the Grand Canyon?

And what if, on one beautiful spring day, a mis-programmed car plows through a playground and kills a dozen schoolchildren?

Acknowledge the strengths of your opponent’s argument.

If you are trying to persuade someone, why on earth would you want to lend credence to his argument?

One reason is that the opposing argument almost certainly has value—something you can learn from and use to strengthen your own argument. This may seem hard to believe since you are so invested in your argument, but remember: we are blind to our blindness.

Furthermore, an opponent who feels his argument is ignored isn’t likely to engage with you at all. He may shout at you and you may shout back at him, but it is hard to persuade someone with whom you can’t even hold a conversation.

Think back to the driverless car that just mowed down a flock of schoolchildren. Is there any value in pretending that such accidents won’t happen? None that we can think of. The death of these children would horrify everyone who heard about it; for the victims’ parents, the very idea of a driverless car would become repugnant.

But let’s consider a different set of parents: the ones whose children are currently dying in traffic accidents. Around the world, some 180,000 kids are killed each year, or roughly 500 a day. In wealthy countries, this is easily the leading cause of death for kids from ages five to fourteen, outpacing the next four causes—leukemia, drowning, violence, and self-inflicted injuries—combined. In the United States alone, traffic accidents kill more than 1,100 kids, age fourteen and under, each year, with another 171,000 injuries.

How many children’s lives would a driverless car save? That’s impossible to say. Some advocates predict it would nearly eliminate traffic deaths over time. But let’s assume that is way too optimistic. Let’s say the driverless car would lower the death toll by 20 percent. That would save 240,000 lives around the world every year, including 36,000 children. Thirty-six thousand sets of parents who wouldn’t have to grieve! And death is just a part of it. Roughly 50 million people a year are injured or disabled by traffic accidents, and the financial cost is mind-boggling: more than half a trillion dollars annually. How nice it would be to lower those numbers by “only” 20 percent.

So yes, we should acknowledge the heartbreak of the parents whose kids were killed when that driverless car ran amok in the playground. But we should also acknowledge how inured we’ve become to the heartbreak faced by millions of people every day because of car crashes.

How did this happen? Maybe we simply accept the trade-off because the car is such a wonderful and necessary part of life. Or maybe it’s because traffic deaths are so commonplace—most of them barely make the news—that, unlike the rare, noisy events that do capture our attention, we just don’t think about them.

In July 2013, an Asiana Airlines flight from South Korea crashed at the San Francisco airport, resulting in three deaths. The crash got big play on just about every media outlet in the country. The message was clear: air travel can be deadly. But how does it compare with car travel? Before the Asiana crash, it had been more than four years since the last fatal commercial flight in the United States. During this period of zero airline deaths, more than 140,000 Americans died in traffic crashes.*

What kind of person could possibly object to a new technology that saves even a fraction of those lives? You’d have to be a misanthrope, a troglodyte, or at the very least a pure idiot.

Keep the insults to yourself.

Uh-oh. Now you’ve gone and called your opponents a bunch of misanthropes, troglodytes, and idiots. Have we mentioned that name-calling is a really bad idea if you want to persuade someone who doesn’t wish to be persuaded? For evidence, look no further than the U.S. Congress, which in recent years has operated less like a legislative body than a deranged flock of summer campers locked in an endless color war.

Human beings, for all our accomplishments, can be fragile animals. Most of us don’t take criticism well at all. A spate of recent research shows that negative information “weighs more heavily on the brain,” as one research team put it. A second team makes an even starker claim: in the human psyche, “bad is stronger than good.” This means that negative events—vicious crimes, horrible accidents, and sundry dramatic evils—make an outsize impression on our memories. This may explain why we are so bad at assessing risk, and so quick to overrate rare dangers (like an airplane crash in San Francisco that kills three people). It also means that the pain of negative feedback will for most people trump the pleasure from positive feedback.

Consider a recent study of German schoolteachers. As it happens, teachers are far more likely to take early retirement than other public employees in Germany, with the chief culprit being poor mental health. A team of medical researchers tried to determine the cause of all this poor mental health. They analyzed many factors: teaching load and class size as well as each teacher’s interactions with colleagues, students, and parents. One factor emerged as the best predictor of poor mental health: whether a teacher had been verbally insulted by his or her students.

So if you are hoping to damage opponents’ mental health, go ahead and tell them how inferior or dim-witted or nasty they are. But even if you are certifiably right on every point, you should not think for a minute that you will ever be able to persuade them. Name-calling will make you an enemy, not an ally, and if that is your objective, then persuasion is probably not what you were after in the first place.

Why you should tell stories.

We have saved for last the most powerful form of persuasion we know. Sure, it’s important to acknowledge the flaws in your argument and keep the insults to yourself, but if you really want to persuade someone who doesn’t wish to be persuaded, you should tell him a story.

By “story,” we don’t mean “anecdote.” An anecdote is a snapshot, a one-dimensional shard of the big picture. It is lacking in scale, perspective, and data. (As scientists like to say: The plural of anecdote is not data.) An anecdote is something that once happened to you, or to your uncle, or to your uncle’s accountant. It is too often an outlier, the memorable exception that gets trotted out in an attempt to disprove a larger truth. My uncle’s accountant drives drunk all the time, and he’s never even had a fender-benderso how dangerous can drunk driving be? Anecdotes often represent the lowest form of persuasion.

A story, meanwhile, fills out the picture. It uses data, statistical or otherwise, to portray a sense of magnitude; without data, we have no idea how a story fits into the larger scheme of things. A good story also includes the passage of time, to show the degree of constancy or change; without a time frame, we can’t judge whether we’re looking at something truly noteworthy or just an anomalous blip. And a story lays out a daisy chain of events, to show the causes that lead up to a particular situation and the consequences that result from it.

Alas, not all stories are true. A great deal of conventional wisdom is built on nothing more than a story that someone has been telling for so long—often out of self-interest—that it is treated like gospel. So it is always worth questioning what a story is based on, and what it really means.

Here’s a story, for instance, that we’ve all heard for many years: the obesity epidemic is the result of too many people eating too much fatty food. That sounds right, doesn’t it? If being fat is a bad thing, then eating fat must also be bad. Why would they give the same name to the nutritional component and the state of being overweight if the component didn’t cause the state? This is the story that launched a million low-fat diets and products, with the U.S. government often leading the way.

But is it true?

There are at least two problems with this story: (1) an ever-growing body of evidence suggests that eating fat is pretty good for us, at least certain types of fat and in moderation; and (2) when people stopped eating fat, it wasn’t as if they instead ate nothing; they began to consume more sugar and more carbohydrates that the body turns into sugar—and which, the evidence suggests, is a huge contributor to obesity.

It is a testament to the power of storytelling that even stories that aren’t true can be so persuasive. That said, we encourage you to use as generous a portion of the truth as possible in your attempts to persuade.

Why are stories so valuable?

One reason is that a story exerts a power beyond the obvious. The whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts—the facts, the events, the context—that a story creates a deep resonance.

Stories also appeal to the narcissist in all of us. As a story unspools, with its cast of characters moving through time and making decisions, we inevitably put ourselves in their shoes. Yes, I would have done that too! or No no no, I never would have made that decision!

Perhaps the best reason to tell stories is simply that they capture our attention and are therefore good at teaching. Let’s say there’s a theory or concept or set of rules you need to convey. While some people have the capacity to latch on directly to a complex message—we are talking to you, engineers and computer scientists—most of us quickly zone out if a message is too clinical or technical.

This was the problem faced by Steve Epstein, who at the time was a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Defense. As head of the Standards of Conduct Office, Epstein had to brief supervisors in various government departments on the sort of things their employees were and were not allowed to do. “And the problem of course is keeping that training fresh, keeping it relevant,” Epstein says. “And to do that we discovered that the first thing you have to do is you have to entertain folks enough so they will pay attention.”

Epstein discovered that straightforward recitation of the rules and regulations wouldn’t work. So he created a book of true stories called The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure. It is a catalog of the epic screw-ups perpetrated by federal workers, divided into helpful chapters like “Abuse of Position,” “Bribery,” “Conflicts of Interest,” and “Political Activity Violations.” The Encyclopedia is one of the most entertaining publications in U.S. government history (which, to be fair, isn’t saying much). We hear about the “entrepreneurial Federal employee” who “backed his panel van up to the office door one night and stole all the computer equipment” and then “tried to sell everything at a yard sale the next day.” We learn that “a military officer was reprimanded for faking his own death to end an affair.” Then there’s the Department of Defense employee who used her Pentagon office to sell real estate. (When caught, she promptly quit the DoD and went into real estate full-time.)

What the Encyclopedia proved, at least to Steve Epstein and his Pentagon colleagues, is that a rule makes a much stronger impression once a story illustrating said rule is lodged in your mind.

The same lesson can be learned from one of the most widely read books in history: the Bible. What is the Bible “about”? Different people will of course answer that question differently. But we could all agree the Bible contains perhaps the most influential set of rules in human history: the Ten Commandments. They became the foundation of not only the Judeo-Christian tradition but of many societies at large. So surely most of us can recite the Ten Commandments front to back, back to front, and every way in between, right?

All right then, go ahead and name the Ten Commandments. We’ll give you a minute to jog your memory …

Okay, here they are:

1. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

2. You shall have no other gods before Me.

3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

4. Remember the Sabbath day, to make it holy.

5. Honor your father and your mother.

6. You shall not murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, nor your neighbor’s wife … nor any thing that is your neighbor’s.

How did you do? Probably not so well. But don’t worry—most people don’t. A recent survey found that only 14 percent of U.S. adults could recall all Ten Commandments; only 71 percent could name even one commandment. (The three best-remembered commandments were numbers 6, 8, and 10—murder, stealing, and coveting—while number 2, forbidding false gods, was in last place.)

Maybe, you’re thinking, this says less about biblical rules than how bad our memories are. But consider this: in the same survey, 25 percent of the respondents could name the seven principal ingredients of a Big Mac, while 35 percent could name all six kids from The Brady Bunch.

If we have such a hard time recalling the most famous set of rules from perhaps the most famous book in history, what do we remember from the Bible?

The stories. We remember that Eve fed Adam a forbidden apple and that one of their sons, Cain, murdered the other, Abel. We remember that Moses parted the Red Sea in order to lead the Israelites out of slavery. We remember that Abraham was instructed to sacrifice his own son on a mountain—and we even remember that King Solomon settled a maternity dispute by threatening to slice a baby in half. These are the stories we tell again and again and again, even those of us who aren’t remotely “religious.” Why? Because they stick with us; they move us; they persuade us to consider the constancy and frailties of the human experience in a way that mere rules cannot.

Consider one more story from the Bible, about King David. He slept with a married woman, Bathsheba, and got her pregnant. In order to cover up his transgression, David arranged for Bathsheba’s husband, a soldier, to die in battle. David then took Bathsheba as his own wife.

God sent a prophet named Nathan to let David know this behavior was unacceptable. But how does a lowly prophet go about imparting such a message to the king of Israel?

Nathan told him a story. He described to David two men, one rich and one poor. The rich man had huge flocks of animals; the poor man had just one little lamb, whom he treated like a member of his family.

One day a traveler came through. The rich man, Nathan told King David, was happy to feed the traveler but he didn’t want to take a sheep from his own flock. So he took the poor man’s only lamb, killed it, and served it to the traveler.

The story enrages David: “The man who did this deserves to die,” he says.

“That man,” Nathan tells him, “is you.”

Case closed. Nathan didn’t berate David with rules—Hey, don’t covet your neighbor’s wife! Hey, don’t kill! Hey, don’t commit adultery!—even though David had broken all of them. He just told a story about a lamb. Very persuasive.

All we’ve been doing in this book, really, is telling stories—about a hot-dog-eating champion, an ulcer detective, a man who wanted to give free surgery to the world’s poorest children. There are of course a million variations in how a given story can be told: the ratio of narrative to data; the pace and flow and tone; the point of the narrative arc at which you “cut into” the story, as the great writer-doctor Anton Chekhov noted. We have been telling these stories in an effort to persuade you to think like a Freak. Perhaps we haven’t been entirely successful, but the fact you have read this far suggests we haven’t failed altogether.

In that case, we invite you to listen to one more story. It’s about a classic piece of advice that just about everyone has received at one point or another—and why you should ignore it.