Monthly Archives: February 2010

Persuasion Tactics with Numbers

Consider this Figure from the IPCC (through the Wall Street Journal), the UN climate change panel that is driving the international conversation on policy.  If a problem can be fairly expressed in one Figure, this is it.

IPCC Temp Figure through WSJ

All you see are the colored lines in the middle of the Figure that meander like Old Man River until 1900 when they take off like a rifle shot with a couple of ricochets in 1950 and 1995, but then return to a trajectory that looks like escape velocity from Planet Earth.

Houston, we’ve got a problem!

A persuasive problem.  Those colored lines draw your eyeball, your attention, and your evaluation.  Zig-zag, zig-zag for thousands of years, then the rocket shot.  Just follow the colored lines . . . like Homer Simpson.

Now, let’s turn up the light a bit and make that gray background more noticeable.  Didn’t really see it, did you?  Of course not.  It’s designed to read like Background when it is actually Foreground.  That dull, plain, and unimportant gray contains the most important Numbers in this Figure, but the IPCC hid that from you to Simplify the data.

Notice two important perceptual qualities about the gray mass.  First notice how wide it is, especially compared to the range of the zig-zagging lines.  The lines essentially are the mid point of Old Man River while the gray background is the banks of the river.  Thus, the Old Man River of global temperature is wide and wanders mightily.

But, second, now note how no colored line at any time ever jumps the banks of the river’s width anywhere.  In scientific terms this means that the wandering of the lines across all points and all times is within the Random Variation or the banks of Old Man River; the lines never jump the banks of Old Man River and that means there is no scientific evidence of any temperature change in the last one thousand years this Figure displays.

Any one trained in statistics can see the mean variation of the colored lines never exceeds the 95% confidence band of the gray background.  Unless one chooses to be Fooled by Randomness and find meaning in the tea leaves, the best scientific data we have shows all that zig-zagging is just the normal variation of Old Man River.

And the IPCC hid that fact in plain sight which is always most persuasive.  Make the Favorable Argument Obvious and make the unFavorable Argument Obscure.

I’ll give the IPCC credit as persuaders.  They understand the Rule:  All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.  There is an obvious lack of sincerity when you persuade with statistics like this.  However, since the IPCC bills itself as a scientific unit, I’d have to caution them on another rule:  All Insincere Science Is Bad.

The iMedium is the iMassage

Afghan PhoneEvgeny Morozov offers an excellent and insightful essay on the consequences of communication technology for changing people and societies.  Many people see a new communication device – radio, film, TV to computer, smartphone, iWhatever – and believe it contains a persuasion revolution.  Morozov looks at the love affair some smart people have with social media and their rosy expectations for political and social change.  He is not optimistic.

As a persuasion guy, I’m not either.

Realize that a communication device only carries messages.  To convey is not to convince.  Reach is not persuasion.  Speaking is not changing.  Interactivity is not change.  The device always carries the message and that is the message, Marshall McLuhan nonwithstanding.

And, this extends to how devices vary in their deployment.  Take the term Network.  Remember it as a collection of allied transmitters that create a TV broadcast Network.  Now see it as the PostModern collection of wired and wireless computers that creates a Network.  Neither Networks are inherently persuasive or inherently persuasive in a New Way.  They just combine different elements of human nature into new packages.

Consider the Rules.

Great Persuaders Don’t Need Rich Uncles, Kindness from Strangers, or Third Party Vote Splitters.

If you know what you are doing you don’t need the New New Thing whether in the form of Ross Perot or Steve Jobs.  You just do it with your skill and make the change happen.  Hitler and Mussolini used, Zounds my Good Sir, radio and newspapers, posters and pamphlets, public speaking and cinema to conquer societies and rational restraints.  Imagine what more they could have done with an iPhone and twitter?  Not much.  They knew what they were doing as evil persuasion geniuses.  Sure, the devices helped, but only as a means of carrying their message.

It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.

Persuasion is not about devices; it is about changing the other guy.  Devices may help you segment your TACTs (gee, are iAcolytes different from the rest of us?) but that’s not persuasion.  You change the Other Guy with messages, not devices.

May he rest in peace, but Marshall McLuhan is dead and so is the Medium is the Message.

Folies d’Avocat

USA Today continues its current marketing campaign to increase readership with rancid health stories.  Today it is perils of hot dogs.  But, no!  Not for the usual reasons of sodium, meat, and mystery.

For shape.

Quoting CDC statistics, USA Today notes that 77 children die every year from choking on food with an expert estimate that 17% of those deaths are from hot dogs.  That’s tough math to do with fingers AND toes, so let me get out the calculator, 77, then the multiplication X sign, and then, yeah, .17 and that =’s 13.09 deaths attributable to hot dogs.

All by design.

“If you were to take the best engineers in the world and try to design the perfect plug for a child’s airway, it would be a hot dog,” says statement author Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “I’m a pediatric emergency doctor, and to try to get them out once they’re wedged in, it’s almost impossible.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission requires labels on toys with small parts alerting people not to give them to kids under 3. Yet there are no required warnings on food, though more than half of non-fatal choking episodes involve food, Smith says.

“No parents can watch all of their kids 100% of the time,” Smith says. “The best way to protect kids is to design these risks out of existence.”

Though Smith says he doesn’t know exactly how someone would redesign a hot dog, he’s certain that some savvy inventor will find a way.

I appreciate Dr. Smith’s and all pediatricians work with children and I’m glad they do it.   And, my heart goes out to parents and families who experience this tragedy.

But . . .

If we need to redesign hot dogs for 13.09 events, how shall we handle natural foods like bananas and grapes which share a shape similarity to hot dogs?  Or do they get a pass here because they are natural?  Perhaps, they kill fewer children, but isn’t one death one too many?  If design kills, why should natural or artificial matter?

I’m just asking as the persuasion guy, you know, since I’m the one who has to handle the communication side of your idea because I’m sure that Dr. Smith doesn’t believe it goes from his lips to their ears then to their mouths.  And people might wonder, if it is the design, then don’t we design everything?  I mean, following Socrates and the humanists, isn’t Man the Measure of All Things?  Designer Science.  No Limits, except Imagination!

And, again with the Warning Labels.  It’s a feature of a new Policy Statement that pediatricians are proposing.  I didn’t realize that Med Schools taught courses in Warning Labels since you can’t swing the latest issue of a medical journal without hitting a medical expert calling for Yet Another Warning Label.

Hey, if you’re a Smart Consultant with a high tolerance for arrogant stupidity, there’s an exciting new career path for you as a Warning Label Consultant to Meds and Feds!  Man, the charges you could make for all the “creative” work on label design – you’d make a lawyer at Boston Legal look like Mother Teresa.

And, then, at the end, the FDA and that new Policy Statement.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has authority to recall products it considers “unfit for food,” plans to review the new statement, spokeswoman Rita Chappelle says.

Might wanna run that by The Man.

Obama Eats Hot Dog

All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

If You Can’t Succeed, Don’t Try.

It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.

Power Corrupts Persuasion . . .

. . . and on and on . . .

If You Can’t Hear the Laughter, Is It Still a Joke?

Thomas Friedman provides this persuasion advice for frustrated True Greens.

In my view, the climate-science community should convene its top experts — from places like NASA, America’s national laboratories, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, the California Institute of Technology and the U.K. Met Office Hadley Centre — and produce a simple 50-page report. They could call it “What We Know,” summarizing everything we already know about climate change in language that a sixth grader could understand, with unimpeachable peer-reviewed footnotes.

Friedman also offers this name change for Global Warming.

1) Avoid the term “global warming.” I prefer the term “global weirding,” because that is what actually happens as global temperatures rise and the climate changes.

The Rules.

All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.

If You Can’t Succeed, Don’t Try.

You Cannot Persuade a Falling Apple.

. . . so I come early from work and catch my best friend in bed with my wife and I says, “Lennie . . . I gotta . . . but you?

Mach the Knife

Get your swing ding-a-ling on . . .

Mach 3 Penny Poster. . . Machiavelli adheres forever with persuasion as both description and prescription.  To persuade is to be like Mach and to persuade well is to make Machiavelli proud.  Machs exhibit no ideological commitments, possess a cynical take on human nature, follow a heartless calculation toward other people, and display a marked disregard for conventional morality.  “Git ‘er done, baby” could be the popular homespun saying, properly twisted.

Academic studies of Machiavellianism paint a dark and dangerous portrait.  Those infected with Mach qualities find themselves classified as pathological and can read detailed descriptions of themselves in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the bible of deviance for clinicians and insurance companies.  And, those who elude capture, but range free in the world like Hannibal Lector between incarcerations, can find themselves quantified in journal reports with Normal Machs who reveal their dark side in Prisoner’s Dilemmas, the Ten Dollar Game, and blasts of white noise.

Of course, it also helps when you invent a Machiavelli that does not exist.  If you read the original Mach IV scale that measures the contemporary meaning of Machiavellianism then compare it to to what Machiavelli wrote, you wonder whether the scale authors were academics or poets.  The Prince is much more subtle than hammers on the thumb like,

“One should take action only when sure it is morally right,”

“Most people are basically good and kind,”

“Honesty is the best policy in all cases,”

“There is no excuse for lying to someone else.”

Certainly anyone who scores High Bad on statements like this is someone to examine carefully for either poison or a bad sense of humor.  They might even be crazy.  But, persuasive?  Manipulative, even?

And while it is good to despise pathology – but, isn’t that a tautology – it is free riding to savage those who save the city from predators.  Machiavelli should not be acknowledged as a bastard, but our bastard, but as a deep thinker on the means of survival, success, and succor for all, including those who would carp, criticize, and cavil all the way to a death camp.

Consider from the Dark Source itself, The Prince, with Machiavelli describing the case of the notorious tyrant, Agathocles:

Yet it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends, to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may gain empire, but not glory. . .  Nevertheless, his barbarous cruelty and inhumanity with infinite wickednesses do not permit him to be celebrated among the most excellent men. What he achieved cannot be attributed either to fortune or to genius.

And, now, a different source, but still Machiavelli’s thought:

“All cities that ever, at any time, have been ruled by an absolute prince, by aristocrats, or by the people, have had for their protection force combined with prudence, because the latter is not enough alone, and the first either does not produce things, or when they are produced, does not maintain them.  Force and prudence, then, are the might of all the governments that ever have been or will be in the world.”

from “Words to be Spoken on the Law for Appropriating Money”, in Chief Works and Others [of Machiavelli], trans. Allan H. Gilbert, 3 vols. (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1965), v. III, 1439.

Prudence operationalizes itself through power and persuasion.  This is pathology?  This is dangerous?  Even Jesus admonished the Disciples to spread the Gospel, but wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove . . .

. . . or blues out with Mr. Armstrong . . .

Persuasive and Profitable Uses of Feedback


Feedback, information on the difference between your current situation and a desired outcome, is a powerful tool for change.  People are naturally equipped with the ability to make these comparisons and then make adjustments to thinking, feeling, or acting to move the current state toward the goal.  Here’s a great story in the Wall Street Journal that describes how power companies are using feedback through usage meters and pricing strategies to alter consumer efficiency.

Usage meters are more sophisticated meters that not only measure energy use, but also provide easy to access, real time, and understandable feedback to the consumer.  Smarter meters are also hooked into a control system where consumers can program energy devices in ways that make them more efficient RIGHT NOW.

Now, none of this is rocket science either to consumers or power companies.  The interesting wrinkle, however, is how much more complicated the system has become with the addition of feedback.  In persuasion terms, the TACT has gone from a fairly generic definition of the Who (any customer) to a much more segmented definition (customers who have health problems that require a constant energy usage; customers who have people at home all the time versus customers who don’t; and on and on).  With feedback meters, the great variety of individual difference comes into play.

In essence, the meters have created a massive persuasion system of interacting people all with individual needs and desires, responding on the basis of not only the meter usage (and price implications) but also thoughts and feelings about control, justice, the Good Life, community demands, and on and on.  We have a complex social system of interacting people with diverse needs and desires.  We’ve got Persuasion, baby!

Now, you need to keep your head on straight and all the concepts orderly.  Feedback is not a form of Reinforcement Theory.  Feedback does not provide Consequences, only Information that compares two States.  The Consequences come from the power company in the form of Price.  The power folks are testing combinations of Carrots (rebates) and Sticks (higher prices at peak times) to see what works because no simple Consequence pattern works with all these diverse TACTs.  So far, they appear to find that people are more sensitive to Loss (higher prices) than Gain (rebates) which is common, so expect pain from the power guys – it tends to work better.

Note, too, the Attribution plays in here.  Customers can only make internal attributions (I did it) for their energy consumption (assuming fair meters).  Thus, the feedback tends to keep people on an internal motivation track rather than an external motivation track.  This difference is important.  Internal motivated people will control themselves and find methods that they like while externally motivated people wait around for The Man to push the buttons and complain all the while about it.

Additionally, all this action will probably generate High WATT, Central Route processors who look for the Arguments (like Price, Convenience, and Comfort).  People really think about this so you’ll get all the positive outcomes of Central Route activity:  More persistence, resistance to counter arguments, and prediction of future behavior.

The really Good News here is that the average effect of meters across all TACTs is positive and appears to produce a small Windowpane effect size (about a 10% reduction in usage).  Larger effects in usage arise with combinations of TACTs and price (people who turned on everything all the time and left them running react quickly to use and price).  Furthermore, this effect occurs immediately, typically within the first billing cycle.  Thus, everyone starts recovering the investment cost of the meters almost from the starting gun as opposed to other Green tactics that can take years of use to break even (as in this foolish, but faddish application – scroll to near end of the post).

The most interesting news reported in the story is anecdotal evidence offered by the power companies:  They claim consumers have positive attitudes and affect toward the meters.  This positivity is not universal (why would you expect that?).  In one case, meters were installed in a large community just before an unusual heat wave hit.  When consumers got their bills which were unusually higher for the time of year because of that heat wave, they attributed the increase to the presence of the meters (“The damn things are miscalibrated to favor the power company!”).  Thus, barring unfortunate coincidences like this, people respond favorably to feedback.

To close the persuasion lesson here, please note that feedback is a special combination of information.  Everyone has to agree on the Goal State, what it means, what it looks like.  Everyone has to agree on the Current State.  When you provide fair information that accurately compares Where You Are to Where You Want To Be, you’ve got Feedback.  You could also add some fabulous persuasion plays to amplify effects, but that’s another post.  I also suspect that the Power boys and girls aren’t thinking Persuasion since they’ve got Price, but they could earn more Profit if they combined Persuasion with Price in this Feedback Play.

Original Hypocrisy as Persuasion Metaphor

MetaphorPlease consider this etymology from EtymologyOnline.

hypocrisy:  from the Greek, hypokrisis, “acting on the stage, pretense,” from hypokrinesthai, “play a part, pretend.”

from hypo- “under” plus the middle voice of krinein “to sift, decide” (see crisis).

The sense evolution is from “separate gradually” to “answer” to “answer a fellow actor on stage” to “play a part.”

[Sidebar:  Actors also look for subtext, so they sift the meaning under the playwright's text, truly to sift under.  One can drift into this subtext sifting with readers, too, as some look for other meanings beyond the obvious.]

from Greek, hypokrites “stage actor, pretender, dissembler,”

from Greek, hypokritikos “acting a part”

from Greek, krisis, lit. “judgment,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,”

Persuasion can literally be hypocrisy.  It acquires its unsavory connotation from those who are sincere, realistic, and traditional watching those who offer many meanings.

It’s about the Other Guy, right?

Obama BlackberryPresident Obama is selectively releasing his email, both personal and professional, to the press and hence the world at large.  You can read a sampling at the British newspaper website, the Guardian.  First, all the caveats that this is only a sampling and it’s selected and you don’t know the context, yada-yada.  But consider this reply to Secretary of Defense Gates on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military.

To: Robert Gates <>
Subject: Re: New CBS poll on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell etc

Wait, wait, what? A much larger proportion of Americans support “gay men and lesbians” serving openly in the military than “homosexuals” serving openly in the military? That’s ridiculous. Sometimes I think half the people in this country need to check their homes for low-level carbon monoxide leakages. So do you think we could push this through with 100% Republican support if we said it was about “confirmed bachelors” and “ladies with close female companions”? Jeez. BHO

I am surprised at the President’s reaction and that he would allow this out in the open.  It betrays a tone deafness to persuasion.  Can you imagine Bill Clinton releasing this?  Or even George W. Bush?  Consider the Rules.

It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.

If the Other Guy feels one way about Gays ‘n Lesbians and another way about Homosexuals, go with it.  You’re not selling your soul to the Devil with this kind of wording preference.  You might recall a recent post where NPR and some of their audiences got touched off because the new Census form included the term, “Negro,” in its survey.  Words matter to the Other Guy and if you want to persuade them (which the Census bureau does not want to do with NPR, but what Mr. Obama does want to do with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy) then use the words the Other Guy gets.

All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

Gee, it appears that President Obama has a low opinion of the intelligence of people who disagree with him over word preference.  How sincere.  How authentic.  How losing.  Where’s any kind of persuasion skill in this?

If You Can’t Succeed, Don’t Try.

My best guess is that the American public would largely support a change in DoD policy on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  We’re a different country today than in 1993 when the policy first arose.  But, if the Persuader-in-Chief is going to blunder around like this, he might jam defeat into the jaws of victory.

This is a great example of awful persuasion.  It certainly does nothing to polish Obama’s image as a great persuader.

Great Moments in Sincere Persuasion

If:  All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere!

Then:  “You can’t get anything right,” he said, “unless you get the polar bear right.”

This from an environmental activist expressing his concerns over the lack of progress with the Obama administration.  Here’s more.

Mr. Snape said his group was particularly disappointed that the administration did not designate the polar bear as endangered by global warming and that it could not push a climate change bill through Congress.

No Peitho Award for Mr. Snape today!

Peithos Standing

Why Not Science for the Sake of Science?

Whistlers Mother Art for Arts SakeWhen you do Science for any other reason than for the sake of doing science, you move yourself into the realm of persuasion.  My Rule observes:

You Cannot Persuade a Falling Apple

. . . which means you do not persuade when you’ve got science.  With science there is no ambiguity, uncertainty, or confusion (maybe error, but that’s something different).  Science is the pursuit of falling apples.

So, how are we to understand the work of some climate change researchers?  As Science for the sake of doing Science or as something beyond Falling Apples?  Consider this quotation from Dr. Phil Jones, a key scientist for the IPCC panel.

And he said that for the past 15 years there has been no ‘statistically significant’ warming.

To nonscientists that quoted phrase “statistically significant” sounds important, if unclear.  It is impossible to explain the concept briefly without over simplifying, but you can read more about it here.  If you can take my word for it, this admission is devastating to the claim that there’s been any practical change in global temperatures over the past 15 years.  In scientific parlance and reasoning, it means it is prudent to retain the null hypothesis of “no effect” and continue researching.  It also means, Don’t Cry Wolf!

Yet, this is exactly what Dr. Jones and his colleagues did.  They used their scientific credibility to hide the details behind a curtain as they cried, “Wolf!”  And, of course, we understand that crying “Wolf” means they were trying to persuade people.  They were not telling us about Falling Apples because the Apples were not Falling as the absence of statistical significance demonstrates.  And, they certainly were not doing Science simply for the sake of Doing Science.

And, this performance is not restricted to climate change researchers.  Recall Tiger Woods’ $12 billion tab on the dime of his various corporate sponsors?  Yeah, Tiger’s escapade in an Escalade caused a significant drop in the value of corporate stock for his sponsors.  Except if you actually read the report and go past the PR Headline, you discover an interesting repetition:  The results are not statistically significant.  Not even close.

If you read their badly formatted figure on page 8 that contains the individual stock prices over time, you see that the 95% confidence limit for each stock on 12 of 13 days includes values that show a loss, no change, or a gain.  To state this another way, each estimate for the effect of Tiger’s transgressions on each stock is statistically nonsignificant at the standard 0.05 alpha level.  It means that the estimates are not reliable.  The study authors artfully hid that flaw with an opaque admission that masked more than it exposed.

Finally, we should caution that our estimates are statistically `noisy,’ in that they could be significantly higher or lower than the numbers we report. One must make that caveat in any statistical study like this, and in our case the statistical margin of error is particularly large in part because Mr. Woods’ sponsors are (with the exception of Nike and EA) subsidiaries of larger parent companies.

When your results are scientifically worthless simply call them “noisy” and voila, you’ve got a Headline.  They, too, cried “Wolf,” but at a Tiger’s expense.  Ha-ha!  Great fun with science, isn’t it?  We get headlines and we admitted everything, but slipped it by everyone nonetheless and no one gets hurt.

Except if you are Dr. Phil Jones who had to resign his leadership position and is under continuing investigation by his university as if he were a rogue like Dr. Ward Churchill, noted Wolf Crier of all things Native American.  And, others in the climate change research community, too, are now feeling the consequence of trying to persuade with Falling Apples that, alas, are not Falling.  Most of the time Persuasive Science is merely a treat as with our UCal Davis economists free riding on Tiger’s misery.  But, the point of science is doing it for the sake of science and not for the sake of headlines, advocacy, or saving the world from itself.

Now, let’s consider Art for Art’s Sake!

Whistlers Nocturn Art for Art