Yearly Archives: 2009

Selling an Afghan Surge to the Left

I predicted yesterday that the Obama Administration will largely follow the recommendations of General McChrystal and rather than make a decisive break from past Afghan policy, will essentially follow a course of action the Bush Administration would have probably pursued. And, I predicted that Obama would accomplish this, in part, by persuasion aimed at his strong Left base using attacks on George W. Bush.

Well, what’s past is now prologue.

THE White House has fingered the former Bush administration for under-resourcing the US war against terrorism, as it gets nervous about committing more troops to the fight in Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama is fast approaching a crunch point on whether to significantly boost troop numbers, after his top military commander in Afghanistan handed a review of the war to the Pentagon.

Mr Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, yesterday responded to questions about the worsening situation in the US-led fight against the Taliban by blaming George W. Bush for past neglect while the focus remained on Iraq. (Italics mine.  Thanks to Small Wars Journal for the Roundup.)

As someone who lived in the progressive world of academics, it always amazes me how simple it is to move lefty zealots with just a few well chosen words like this.   Of course, if you move in the world of conservative zealots, you’ll find the same thing occurs with them. As long as a trusted source utters the words, everyone “feels” what they mean even if they sound troublesome.

Right now progressives view any disparagement of Mr. Bush as a strong Argument to support even a hated war.  This appears to be a simple application of the infamous Clinton triangulation tactic (which flows out of Fritz Heider’s Balance Theory).  I hate Bush.  You hate Bush.  I like you.  You like the Long War.  I like the Long War . . . for now.

Wait until progressives think Obama lost on health care reform or energy policy.  Then that simple triangulation syllogism won’t work.

Remember, All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

The Devil Invented Observational Research

I distrust observational research.

It is a tool of lazy minds and lazy bodies that fools people into thinking they can do science without leaving the office.  Properly subordinated to experimental research, observational research can suggest outlines, but it never, never, never provides the same kind of knowledge.

I’ve stated my position.  Any questions about where I stand?  Good.  Keep it in mind.  I have a strong position here.  That might bias me to think stupid thoughts and worse still say or write them.  Keep that in mind as you read the rest.  I’m sure you’ll let me know where I’m wrong.

Get ready for an entirely new line of observational research with the invention of a new form:  Infodemiology.

What is infodemiology, you ask?

Infodemiology can be defined as the science of distribution and determinants of information in an electronic medium, specifically the Internet, or in a population, with the ultimate aim to inform public health and public policy.

In other words, we can read the newspaper on the Internet and do scientific research to drive public health and policy.  You can go to Google Flu Trends and find “hot” spots for illness.  You don’t have to scientifically verify the measurement of any variable, just take the fricking equivalent of anonymous blog comment as a reliable and valid observation, plug it into LazybutPublishedStat 2.0, and you’re saving the world!

At present my beloved and often maligned CDC is not yet fully on board with this cutting edge foolishness.

None of these tools, experts reiterate, can replace the kind of in-depth disease surveillance and testing performed by city, state and federal agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You’re always going to have to have this verified against a system that’s physician-based,” said Ashley Fowlkes, an epidemiologist with the CDC. “It’ll always be a nice adjunct to current surveillance systems and . . . may serve as an early warning system.”

Please, if there is a God in Heaven, a Mechanic by the Clock, or a Mother in Nature, please don’t let infodemiology ever appear in a real science journal.  Please.

Off Blog: Cool Knives

My brother-in-law, Phil Booth, is a custom knifemaker and artist of no mean skill.  Here are a couple of examples of his latest custom design:  the Hot Rod knife.

You can see more of Phil’s work at his website including a fun video of a special Hot Rod knife in action.

Why Persuading on Health and Safety Is So Difficult

Persuasion is always about “something” and can never be in a Seinfeld episode about “nothing.”  Right now, a great “something” is anything scientific about health and safety.  You give me a scientific finding about heart attacks, cancer, or erectile dysfunction and baby fire up the Cascade, cause we’re gonna makes some change!  Stated more prudently, science plus persuasion equals change (and maybe fame and fortune).

Of course, the science has to be good because if you persuade on bad science, you make a lot of people confused and maybe worse off.  So, just to be on the safe side, only use persuasion on scientific health and safety research published in premier sources.  And, didja know, there’s even an association of the editors of such elite outlets who work together to develop and enforce strong standards of science for their publications, so silly social scientists like myself who don’t know adenine from zirconia can rely upon the quality of the source to find strong science.

So goes the theory anyway.

Cialis TubIf you read this blog you’ll find occasional posts where I throw up my hands over weaknesses in medical researchers and wail over their sins because it makes my job tougher.  You can’t sell that bathtub if the pill doesn’t get you dirty, you know.

Well, here’s Yet Another Reason why persuading with science is such a chore.
The Journal of the American Medical Association offers a study of the registration history for randomized controlled trials that publish in “high impact” journals.  According to the abstract:

Results Of the 323 included trials, 147 (45.5%) were adequately registered (ie, registered before the end of the trial, with the primary outcome clearly specified). Trial registration was lacking for 89 published reports (27.6%), 45 trials (13.9%) were registered after the completion of the study, 35 (10.8%) were registered with no or an unclear description of the primary outcome, 39 (12%) were registered with no or an unclear description of the primary outcome, and 3 (0.9%) were registered after the completion of the study and had an unclear description of the primary outcome. Among articles with trials adequately registered, 31% (46 of 147) showed some evidence of discrepancies between the outcomes registered and the outcomes published. The influence of these discrepancies could be assessed in only half of them and in these statistically significant results were favored in 82.6% (19 of 23).

Conclusion Comparison of the primary outcomes of RCTs registered with their subsequent publication indicated that selective outcome reporting is prevalent.

What this means for everyday people is that the majority of randomized controlled trials (RCT) whose results are published in top medical journals are playing fast and loose with the standard of the scientific method and the editorial standards of those top journals.  If you’re not in the business, you may not see the drama, so let me deconstruct.

When you do an RCT and register it, it means that you are publicly announcing in advance, before you do the experiment, what you expect to happen.  In Las Vegas we call this placing your bet.  In Vegas, you place your money on the table then they deal the cards or spin the wheel and you get what you get.  If you’re doing really good science, you know what you are looking for, why you are looking for it, how to look for it, and you will make the bet BEFORE the experiment.

Except in over half the cases of RCTs published in top journals, the researchers did not register the study.  In other words, they did not put their money on the table, but took the cards or the spin of the wheel and THEN they made the bet.

Now, very quickly, failure to register does not mean the researchers falsified data.  It does mean that they may change their bet after they’ve seen the spin of the wheel or the throw of the dice.  Then, after the result, they offer an explanation of the results which is like throwing the dice, seeing an eight, then betting on eight.

The scientific danger here is that researchers are taking data that was originally designed in a specific experiment to test a specific hypothesis, but because the data did not work that way, they reanalyze the data from a slightly different perspective (e.g. look at only men over 55 married to blonde women thirty years younger) and, lo and behold, they find a positive outcome for a little blue pill.  They then write up the experiment from this perspective, omitting mention of all the men under 55 or not married to younger blonde women, and send this good news to the great journal.

Editors at these top journals apparently are not checking on researchers and are assuming that high quality folks who went to the same schools they did are playing according to Hoyle, which as this abstract demonstrates, appears to be an assumption that is wrong more than half the time.  Boola-boola, old chum.

This is a world class crazy maker for a persuasion guy like me and, of course, for other scientists.  When folks design an experiment one way, check the data, find failure, reanalyze to find success, then write up the success omitting the failure, we’ve got bad science that no one knows about.  All of the benefits of experiments, particularly randomization and control, disappear, but since the researchers are less than forthcoming with the details, no one knows this.

The worst practical implication of this finding is how it corrodes trust.  Who’s deceiving?  Over half the cases checked in this study showed some type of a failure to register.  Now, it’s possible that the researchers still did the study they promised, so who knows?  And, worse still, you don’t know who’s registering and who is not registering.  This is something the editors are supposed to handle and they clearly are not.

Further, many science editors and researchers are clamoring like serfs in a Frankenstein movie on torchlight parade at Castle Pharma searching for the monster of Scientific Fraud for Profit.  It appears while these folks are sharpening their pitchforks many of their peers are playing games with data that would lead to the death penalty if found anywhere at Castle Pharma. (Note:  I am not influenced by any pharma in any way and I do not take little blues pills because Melanie has another intervention that works.)

Whenever I consider any persuasion play I am always worried about the TACT we target.  Is this a good thing?  Is this going to work?  If we change the TACT will people be okay?  When scientific researchers deceive about the nature and quality of the research, it rots the credibility of the science and may offer snake oil in a little blue pill – and that’s best case.  It could kill people, you know.  When you alter an experiment in these ways, you turn it into observational research.  Think about it.

Predictions on Obama and SC

President Obama will largely accept the recommendations of the military regarding the Long War and will stay largely on this track until after the 2010 off-year elections.

Departures from “largely” will be focused on 1) wording and 2) Democrat election politics.  Linguistically, Mr. Obama will use new words to describe fundamentally old ideas.  For example, Obama does not call it the “War on Terror,” but rather the “War against Al-Qaeda.”  This linguistic change is sufficient for enough Democrats and independents to support what are functionally Bush policies.  He will draw verbal contrasts between what he is doing and what Bush did and label prior actions as “failed” or “corrupt” or “selfish” and then do pretty much what Bush would have done (as in the draw down in Iraq going on right now).

“Largely” shows up in Democrat politics in examples like Obama on  Gitmo, where he closed the building but did not stop the policy, while the legislative process, controlled by Democrats, figures out where to put the Gitmo prisoners.  I anticipate that McChrystal will make requests for resources or personnel in a rather specific way, but Obama will overrule this specific request and substitute resources or personnel that functionally provide what McChrystal requested, but supports a Democrat in a contested district.

Obama has to govern the entire nation and needs cooperation from Democrats and independents on foreign policy.  His actions on the Long War can actually manipulate Republican opinion and support.  He might be able to horse trade with Republicans on issues like health care or energy – huge issues for his base and his credibilty – if he stays on the Bush path with the Long War even while everyone demeans former President Bush.

By contrast, if Obama chooses a fundamentally different course on the Long War, he destroys all possible Republican support and some independent support and exposes himself and his party to electoral devastation if even one minor attack in America would occur.  Why take that risk?

He has the greatest room for maneuver and firepower for his entire political agenda and for his leadership efficacy if he keeps fighting the Long War while using different words and playing Chicago alderman politics with resources.

If this is true, Long War supporters need to think and talk differently.  Most particularly, they should not publicly attack Obama and his Administration.  They should look to cooperate, provide him pitches to hit that stay in the ball park, and seek resource and personnel packages with sympathetic and troubled Democrat office holders.

For SC believers, it would be prudent to soldier on and follow Admiral Mullen.  SC is a serious problem for any Administration because SC involves public words that may solve a problem in Afghanistan, but create a problem in California or Ohio or Pennsylvania.  Words scare the hell out of any White House.

Right now, SC needs to think not only of the military implications, but also the political implication of it.  Consider the possibility that Admiral Mullen might know things you don’t and back him up.  Say things that support him, right now.  We’re in that dicey time where many people will be clamoring for a decision, but only one guy makes it.  Why damage your guy to sound smart or principled?

If you buy my larger political analysis of the situation, this makes sense.  Of course, I’m outside the Pentagon and don’t know what I’m talking about, so you need to factor that in, too.

Speak Softly and Carry a . . . What?

Professor Nye is back with Soft Power and the promise of communication in the hands of smooth talkers like Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Gandhi, Woodrow Wilson, Lee Hsien Loong, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt (Franklin, but not Teddy), Truman, Reagan, and, of course, Barack Obama.

Everything wrong with Strategic Communication can be found in Professor Nye’s commentary.  Anyone who would put that Gang of Suspects in the same room is selling a concept that is snake oil, academic snake oil.  It’s great for tenure and op-ed and the Cool Table, but is it communication he’s talking about?

Nye’s soft power communication is soft, flabby, fluffy, plastic, gooey, and only a Lewis Carroll term where words mean what we want them to mean.  It benefits Professor Nye, but anyone attempting to make practical application of his idea will find failure.

No wonder Admiral Mullen is mad as hell and not taking it anymore.

Weight as Persuasion WAC

ClipboardZealots of this blog (hi, Mom!) know that persuasion variables can function as WATTage, Arguments, or Cues, cleverly captured with the acronym, WAC.  You understand persuasion, not with how it looks, but by what it does.  Today we look at another application and implication of the WAC.

Jostmann and colleagues conducted a series of experiments on the variable, physical weight, and used it in a variety of functions.

For example, they randomly assigned participants to evaluate the quality of unfamiliar currencies holding the currencies clipped to either a heavy or a light clipboard.  Participants rated the (same) currency as more valuable when holding the heavy clipboard.  And, the effect size here was a medium (see the Windowpane for a visual demonstration).

Physical weight here clearly functions as a . . . what do you think?  WATTage, Argument, Cue?  Here’s your smiley face sticker if you said, “Cue,” or something that you meant as “Cue” even if you really said, “WATTage” or “Argument.”

Our typical human experience tends to associate heavy things with great value compared to lighter things, so the weight functions as a Cue, a simple heuristic that is often correct.  Of course, “heavy is better than light,” is not true in all cases (look at the bathroom scale, right?), but in a wide variety of instances “heavy” has a more favorable association than “light.”

So, weight is a Cue.

Now, just to confound us, Jostmann and colleagues ran additional experiments.  They randomly supplied strong or weak Arguments to participants holding heavy or light clipboards.  If weight is always just a Cue, then Argument quality should make no difference, right?  People are Cue-ing off the weight and skimming over the Arguments.

Except that’s not true in this weight function.  People holding heavy clipboards actually read the Arguments and if they got strong Args, they had more positive attitudes and if they read weak Args, they had more negative attitudes compared to the folks holding the light clipboards.  This interaction between clipboard weight and Argument quality shows the familiar fan effect from ELM theory.  And, again the effect sizes here were moderate to large.

So, in this instance, weight is functioning as WATTage, a variable that turns the dimmer switch from low to high WATT.  We see that function because the paricipants discriminate the differences in Argument quality.

Jostmann et al., did not conduct a weight as Argument experiment, but after reading this, you should be able to generate some ideas.  How about a new fitness program aimed at strengthening and people who follow the program have more muscle mass compared to those who don’t use the new fitness program?

So, here’s today’s lesson, class.  Persuasion variable have their effect as function not form, thus poetically echoing the famous dictum of the architect, Louis Sullivan, that form follows function.  A simple, physical, and obvious thing (form) like weight (good grief, can you be more real?) has persuasion functions that follow the WAC.

Furthermore, the intellectual concepts of the WAC can be embodied in physical reality.  Normally we think of persuasion as an abstract science dealing with all manner of unseen variables like attitudes, elaboration likelihood, intention, norm, and so on, but realize that we always bring our bodies along with us wherever we go.  Jostmann et al.’s work demonstrates how to make abstract persuasion ideas as real as that spare tire around your waist!

Now, all you have to do is figure out how to make weight work for you like Jostmann et al. did with a clipboard.

How about a resume on heavy print stock – but you better have strong Arguments, right?  That’s an interesting persuasion study I’ve not seen.  Print resumes on heavy or light paper and list either strong or weak Arguments on the resumes.  This research would suggest that if you’ve got great job qualifications, present them in a heavy way.  Official pronouncements should likewise appear on heavy paper and never on flimsy stock.

Isn’t human nature interesting?

Jostmann, Nils B., Daniel Lakens, and Thomas W. Schubert (2009). Weight as an Embodiment of Importance, Psychological Science, 20 (September), 1169–74.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02426.x

Sister Cities as Persuasion

Matt Armstrong at MountainRunner focuses upon Eisenhower “citizen diplomacy” programs during the Cold War.  It’s a great pull from the past applied to the present as Mr. Armstrong considers the implications and applications of “citizen diplomacy” for today.  I’ve got two observations to chip in.

First, I view these kind of programs not simply as policy, but as persuasion plays.  They deliver persuasive messages through the strongest channel, face-to-face communication in relational contexts.  Just folks citizens from America and the “sister” country meet in cultural exchange settings, but the real persuasion work occurs in those casual conversations that naturally emerge.  Now, certainly not all of these exchanges are “on message” in the strongest sense of the term and certainly some of these exchanges produce problems.  But, on balance, “citizen diplomacy,” functions as high WATT processing of very strong Arguments.

Second, if you want to learn more about Eisenhower’s communication and persuasion efforts during the Cold War, I highly recommend a highly useful book by Kenneth Osgood’s, “Total Cold War.”  It’s a scholarly examination of that historical period with good access to the archives.

Law of the Hammer, Communication, and War

Abu Muqawama and Small Wars point to a NYT story quoting Admiral Mike Mullen:

“To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate,” Admiral Mullen wrote in the critique, an essay to be published Friday by Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal.

“I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all,” he wrote. “They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are.”

As a persuasion and communication guy I am moved to quote Gretchen Wilson and give a big, “Hell, yeah!”

One enduring myth about communication is that communication can solve our problems.  It can’t and it often makes things worse, especially when it tries to “put lipstick on a pig.”

My own experience with this disconnect occurred and still occurs with some of my health and safety colleagues who tried and still try to put lipstick on various crazy, inept, or ineffective ideas they’d developed to save citizens from themselves.  My best persuasion effort won’t change the world if it pushes a stupid idea.  If we are falling all over ourselves in Afghanistan, strategic communication won’t fix it.

The Admiral’s point is both simple and complicated.  Simple – communication won’t win the war.  Complicated – communication could help, but it must follow good policy and execution.

Communication zealots can fall prey to the Law of the Hammer – give a child a hammer and everything’s a nail.  Mullen warns about zealots and hammers, but we don’t lose sight that when you’ve got a nail, a hammer might work.

But, first the nail, then the hammer.

Countering Taliban Persuasion – a Cascade Analysis

Okay, it’s propaganda when the Bad Guys do it, right?  So my headline is all wrong.  Except if you are thinking like a stone cold persuasion guy, no, it isn’t.  Everybody uses the same concepts, but they play for different teams.  If you start believing that Bad Guy communication is not “Persuasion,” but is instead “Propaganda,” then you bias your thinking in a bad way.  The Bad Guys are subject to the same principles of human nature as we are.

Remember the Rule: All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.  As a corollary:  All Bad Persuasion Research Is Sincere.


Now, imagine you have the mission and the resources to counter Taliban persuasion.  How do you think about this?

Consider the Standard Model and the Cascade as your structure for translating operational information back to strategy and vice versa.  (Check the blog Pages on Sixty Seconds if you’re in a hurry or if you’ve got more time,  ELM and SM1-3 located near the top of the blog.)

Given this structure, you can assign the Taliban persuasion to different Cascade categories and begin to understand it.  After you understand it, you can attack it.  But first, comprehend.

1.  What are the TACTs (behavior changes) the Taliban seek?

TACTs reveal both the persuasion plan and the grand strategy.  With TACTs you can work down through the rest of the Cascade to understand the persuasion strategy, but you can work up to clues about the Taliban grand strategy.  For example, TACTs will vary across regions of Afghanistan during the same time period.  That may reflect the grand strategy (or, of course, it might reflect operational weakness, confusion, or, gee, maybe we kicked their butts).  But variation in TACTs is a gold mine of information.

How are the TACTs structured – by tribe, by loyalty, by hierarchy of effect (pan Islamic, regional, national, tribal, village), by time, by violence, by regional or international events?

2.  What claims regarding Attitude, Norm, and Efficacy do they offer for each TACT?

All volitional behaviors are driven by Attitude (what’s good and bad about doing the behavior), Norm (who supports and opposes the behavior), and Efficacy (what’s easy and difficult about doing the behavior).  If you want to drive the behavior you have make claims that the behavior is “good” (positive, beneficial, enjoyable, fun, rewarding), “popular” (all the right people support it), and “easy” (cheap, fast,).  Thus, for each TACT, the Taliban should be making persuasion plays that address good, popular, and easy.

Furthermore, different TACTs require different sets of Attitude, Norm, and Efficacy.  Those variations tell you how the Taliban thinks about the different TACTs and also reveals their “formative research” (determining how to campaign with a particular group of receivers).  If the Taliban are dumb, they will violate the Rule, All Bad Persuasion is Sincere, and devise Attitude, Norm, and Efficacy issues that are important to them.  If they are smart, they will devise Attitude, Norm, and Efficacy issues that are important to their targets.  That distinction is tough to make, but you need to do it.  If you think they are dumb, the Taliban have just told you what they think is important.  If you think they are smart, they have told you what Taliban targets think is important.  You learn both who to move on and how to move.

3.  How do they manipulate WATTage, Arguments, and Cues?

To change selected Attitudes, Norms, and Efficacy, the Taliban must deliver either Arguments or Cues to the target receivers.  These Arguments and Cues must match up with the Attitude, Norm, and Efficacy elements they want to change.

In specific, here-and-now, persuasion, the Taliban must also move the dimmer switch from low to high WATT depending upon whether they are using Arguments or Cues.  If you can figure this out, you’ve got another valuable piece of knowledge.  Manipulating WATTage even among people of your own cultural group is a difficult task.  If the Taliban are doing it, you’ve learned something.

Look at what functions as Argument.  You might see regional variations in Arguments aimed at the same Attitude or Norm or Efficacy element.  Why are the Arguments different?

You’ll probably see differences in impact following this Argument or that Cue.  Why did the variation occur?

You are looking for the Strong Arguments and the Positive Cues that see to create the greatest change in the target receivers.  (Of course, you’d also like to find Weak Arguments and Negative Cues, too, because a Taliban Weak Argument is probably an ISAF Strong Argument, right?)

4.  How do they distribute persuasive messages?

Sure, look for channel differences – radio or night message or speech at a jirga.  But again focus on variations.  Resources may dictate some distribution patterns; the Taliban may not be able to use radio in one area for technical or safety reasons.  Figure that out, but again look at how different TACTs; Attitude, Norm, and Efficacy; and WATTage, Argument, and Cues combination appear in different channels.  Maybe they always run a particular persuasion message exclusively through radio.  Why?

The most important function of channel is reach.  Some channels reach different receivers better than others.  What reach lessons do you learn by the pattern of distribution?

Channels can also support Arguments or Cues.  Jirga speeches support highly relational, cultural, and personal persuasion plays.  That face-to-face setting amplifies the human connection.  Look for such patterns.

5.  Big Picture

At the end of this Cascade analysis, you will have an Impressionist painting in your mind.  You will have a good picture of how the Taliban operate, but the details will be blurry and may obscure crucial elements.  You will see larger patterns of how some persuasion variables combine in recurring patterns – this TACT with Norm changed through Cues at face-to-face interactions in Taliban-leaning villages.  If you have data over time, you can construct, if you will, a movie of Impressionist paintings and you can see the variation flow, pulse, enlarge, and shrink.

While you may never have Ultra intercepts of top secret coded Taliban communication, you do have a stronger and clearer sense of their persuasion plan and operation.  You know the TACTs; Attitude, Norm, and Efficacy elements; manipulations of WATTage, Argument, and Cue; and the channels of distributions.  You also see variations and patterns that mark the mind and hand of planning.  You can analyze these variations and patterns to understand Taliban persuasion goals and methods, strengths and weaknesses, arrogance and fear.

All this flows from a structured analysis of communication.