Category Archives: Government

what happens after the election or the revolution; the people’s business

Persuasion without Consequences for ObamaCare Counting

In the continuing analysis of ObamaCare . . . let’s continue to count the change.

The administration did not release two other crucial statistics that would help determine the success of the law: the number of people among the eight million who bought insurance for the first time and the number who paid their initial premiums.

The number of those who were previously uninsured is important, since many people could simply have been moved from plans that were canceled by the law. Administration officials have promised to release that information when they have it, but they have said it is not data that is collected by the government.

The count now stands at 8 million enrolled which is even better than the 7 million previously counted. But, that’s a count which includes many people who don’t truly count for ObamaCare. People who already had health insurance, but then enrolled for ObamaCare because the law killed their previous policies do not count. ObamaCare aimed at the uninsured, right? And, it sure would be nice if enrollees also had paid premiums because enrollment without payment is fantasy insurance. But:

Administration officials have promised to release that information when they have it, but they have said it is not data that is collected by the government.

How is it possible that the government does not have this information? I’m not talking politics here, I’m talking straight persuasion and counting the change. I’ve designed and implemented a new computer-based system that people must enter to count and I cannot count at every nanosecond variables like prior insurance, age, or health status? That is astoundingly unbelievable on the face of it, like catching your children with their hair on fire while swearing they weren’t playing with matches.

Who designs a Big Data system that cannot instantaneously and continuously count things like that? Such an assertion bears no scrutiny because of the implications for either (or both) competence and character. You cannot be that stupid or that dishonest. I think that Team Obama knows to the fifth decimal place exactly the count on these variables and is maneuvering. Consider these three paragraphs from the NYTimes account.

President Obama announced Thursday that eight million people have signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, including what the White House said were a sufficient number of young, healthy adults, a critical milestone that might counter election-year attacks by Republicans on the law’s success and viability.

In the early months of signups, the number of young people between the ages of 18 and 34 — who tend to be healthier — hovered around 25 percent. But as White House officials predicted, many young people appear to have waited until close to the March 31 deadline to enroll, increasing their participation.

The administration said Thursday that 28 percent of those who bought policies were between the ages of 18 and 34, but some analysts said the optimum level would be 40 percent.

So. Team Obama asserts there is a “sufficient number” of young and healthy first time enrollees because at first only 25% of this target enrolled, but now it’s all the way up to 28%. Do a cold hearted persuasion analysis on this.

Team Obama can say that 28% of the enrollees are young and healthy, but cannot say whether anyone is previously insured. They can say that 28% of the enrollees are young and healthy, but cannot say whether anyone paid their premiums. Again, I shout, are you serious? What kind of Big Data system permits a public number as specific as 28% young and healthy, but doesn’t permit any number for prior insurance or payment status?

This is the kind of counting you would expect if you were protecting the Idiot Niece or Nephew in the Corner Office running a new Big Data Initiative. Only someone who enjoys kindness from strangers or a rich daddy or a good looking momma can say things like this and survive.

Quickly now, draw a sharp contrast in this Local and most others. Team Obama holds their position until January 2017 and can get away with such obvious political machinations. They face no existential consequences. For everyone else who lives in a Skinner Box, this kind of Big Data design, implementation, and public comment is a shock box.

As always with a persuasion campaign, especially one still on-going, is the problem that you rarely have all the crucial information you need to critique it. Thinking as the persuasion guy in charge of doing ObamaCare, I’d be having heart failure today even with the limited public knowledge about it. Sure, I’ve got a number like “eight million” that everyone around me agrees is a safe public number, but that I know is only a General Semantics Persuasion Play©™® where we’re fooling Other Guys into confusing the number for the reality.

I’d also be worrying over the next round of enrollments which begin in a few months. Will I still have a bazillion dollar media budget? Will Mr. Obama still play irony between the ferns? How am I going to motivate the nearly 40 million remaining uninsured to get into my system? And my prior experience in the Fed would worry me more. Even when there’s enough money, somebody can always just change their mind and a campaign gets dropped, neither a failure nor a success, but politically useful.

Man, anyone who thinks persuadin’ is easy don’t know sand from ice.

Peace, Prosperity, and Randomized Controlled Trials

Gina Kolata at the New York Times provides an interesting article about the uses of randomized controlled trials in a new Fed agency created as part of ObamaCare, the Affordable Care Act.

The idea seemed transformative. The Affordable Care Act would fund a new research outfit evocatively named the Innovation Center to discover how to most effectively deliver health care, with $10 billion to spend over a decade.

Again, this was yet another provision in that legislation I hadn’t heard much about, kind of like with that calorie count silliness. But, hey a billion bucks a year on intervention effectiveness is a lot money to test what works and what doesn’t. That means, of course, my beloved randomized controlled trial wherein you randomly assign Other Guys to controlled conditions, count the change, and open the Windowpane. Medical practice is rife with tradition, ritual, and the skulking effect of profit which sometimes obscures what works from what doesn’t (see Prostate Cancer as the Poster Boy). How can you not love an Innovation Center that produces the best available science to understand life and death?

But now that the center has gotten started, many researchers and economists are disturbed that it is not using randomized clinical trials, the rigorous method that is widely considered the gold standard in medical and social science research. Such trials have long been required to prove the efficacy of medicines, and similarly designed studies have guided efforts to reform welfare-to-work, education and criminal justice programs.

Kolata itemizes through example a series of projects the Center has funded that don’t even have control group much less random selection or assignment. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been awarded from the Innovation Center to continue doing what has already been done. But with improvements! Here’s my favorite.

Instead, the Innovation Center has so far mostly undertaken demonstration projects; about 40 of them are now underway. Those projects test an idea, like a new payment system that might encourage better medical care — with all of a study’s participants, and then rely on mathematical modeling to judge the results.

. . . then rely on mathematical modeling to judge the results.

Read the good news! Tooth Fairy Tales are now Innovative! Yeah. They get funded by something called the Innovation Center, so by definition they must be Innovative. Talk about eating the menu! But, there’s a good reason the Innovation Center is doing this.

Dr. Patrick Conway, the director of the center, defended its reliance on demonstration projects, saying they allowed researchers to evaluate programs in the real world and regularly adapt them. “Does it look like it is working?” he asked. “If it does not look like it is working, we can stop.”

He said that the center has had trouble getting such studies to yield solid results because those in the control groups — who do not get the innovation being tested — tend to drop out.

Control group dropouts. While a few experimentalists reading this are laughing out loud, most of you don’t get it. But, it’s kind of like listening to a child explain sex to an adult. Study dropouts plague all forms of research, not just experiments. For a guy at this level to say something like this to a reporter is world class silly.

Conway is an MD with a strong business administration background who obviously knows nothing about science which is pretty much how it goes in the government with MDs in charge. He is part of the old way of tradition, ritual, and profit and has no background in doing science. He does have a Tooth Fairy background with training in epidemiology so he’s familiar with that kind of counting. Is it any surprise that the money going out of his door is for Tooth Fairy Tales and not for the grind of randomized controlled trials?

Good science is damn difficult as many of my posts on the Persuasion Blog have discussed when I find good science. Persuasive science, by contrast, a Tooth Fairy Tale, is easy. You just need a facile Stat Boy or Girl and a Good Story. And that’s what $10 billion of your tax dollars is going to buy as long as guys like Conway are walking the beat. And it also helps when you are fishing in abundant waters of peace and prosperity. Note this contrast.

The situation is different in the developing world. There, randomized trials have become common in health care and other areas, sponsored by a variety of groups like J-PAL, a global network of researchers that was organized by M.I.T. and Harvard economists.

So far, J-PAL has conducted over 440 randomized trials in 55 countries, according to Amy Finkelstein, an M.I.T. economist.

When you don’t have peace and prosperity, then it is crucial that you wisely spend what little you’ve got and it turns out those in the Developing World put their limited resource on experiments while guys like Conway fund Fairy Tales. We can afford to be this careless. We can afford to featherbed the union with make-work grants. Back in the 1950s Hollywood made gritty movies in black and white with Marlon Brando about this kind of corruption. Nowadays this is how the Cool Table rolls.

I’ve got to underscore the obvious irony of elite progressive bureaucrats with Ivy degrees bringing Hope and Change with . . . Fairy Tales. Regardless of the merits of ObamaCare when they say they will use Innovation, you might expect that Innovation to include science in the study of science. But, persuasion is stronger.

I’ll go out on a very short limb here without even looking over the list of those 40 projects already awarded by the Innovation Center. Yeah, none of them are randomized controlled trials (control group dropouts!) and the rest are Fairy Tales with math modeling to prove results; we know that. But, how many awards are to Cool Table programs meaning Ivy and their Fellow Travelers? Remember BAM at Harvard? This is the same thing.

Gotta tell you. If you get a call to work at the Innovation Center, I highly recommend you take it, especially compared to that silly Nudge operation in the White House led by a postdoc. The Center has to move a billion bucks a year out the door. The joint is drowning in cash right now and they’ve got a Hall Pass from the principal to skip past standard clearance procedures because it’s all about getting a billion dollars out the door every year. Funding Big Science doesn’t get any better than this, even at the NIH which is the Old Kid on that block. Of course, funding Big Science doesn’t have to include doing any science at all. Find guys who tell Good Stories and have access to a kid with an abacus. Best of all, you can network your boolah-boolah buddies into this game or you can expand your boolah-boolah network for your next job because all this is going to end one day. The Fed always catches up to new money.

See the mess of life in the Local called the Affordable Care Act. Savvy panthers at elite Fairy Tale universities got themselves wired into a billion dollar a year program to maintain the status quo while pretending to innovate. Persuasion does not get much better than this. As I’ve noted before we’re getting close to putting 20% of the US GDP on health care broadly defined. It is the largest Bolivian Bank on the planet and perhaps in the history of the world. It makes the infamous Tulip Bulb Bubble and the East India Trading Company Bubble look like . . . soap bubbles.

If you are a smart and elite vampire and you’re not in the Health Bubble, you are playing for small beer.

P.S. Remember Take This Pill (I, II, III, IV)? This research delivered a pill (placebo or multivitamin) to 15,000 physicians for several years, then tracked through self report survey and health databases variables on the physicians. The results were null and void. No benefit (or harm!) from taking a multivitamin even though prior Tooth Fairy Tales had argued the life-altering importance of the pill. While the pill was not life-altering, the grant certainly was. Look at this (click to enlarge).

NIH Funding Multivitamin Study

NIH paid Harvard $15,000,000 over 10 years to collate self report surveys and databases on 15,000 physicians. And that didn’t include the cost of the pills which was covered by a cooperating Big Pharma. Back in my Fed days, Harvard got 100% indirects which means that Big Crimson pulled $7,500,000 off the top of this for the cost of doing business with Harvard.

You’ll recall this study began, unusually enough, as a randomized controlled trial – an experiment! – but the results were so bad that the researchers had to break the randomization and “adjust” the results for various “confounders” that permitted trivial Windowpanes to be opened with statistical significance. Kinda like what this Center for Innovation is doing so far. Say, “experiment,” but then execute Tooth Fairy Tales.

Yeah. It’s all about the science.

Finding the Tea Leaves with ObamaCare

After a bad start, Team Obama hit its public number of 7 million enrollees in ObamaCare. Some insiders are now talking about the persuasion campaign. Consider this question and answer.

Q: Think at the 60,000-foot level about the way history books talk about presidential administrations and how they have problems and confront them. Are there lessons about the mistakes made?

MR. MCDONOUGH: Look, I’m a person with a very active conscience. But I’m not going to bare that to you today. I’ve done a lot of thinking about that . . .

. . . The third is something I’ve been saying ever since October 1, which is the strength is in the planning, not in the plan. There’s never a plan that you run in the government, and I don’t know, maybe the private sector, that survives first contact.

McDonough maintained operational leadership of the persuasion campaign and his perceptions are crucial to understanding what happened. And, like a good panther, he’s not going to tell us anything about that. He has a “very active conscience” which sounds like the beginnings of a confession, but then the cold heart of a panther kicks in.

McDonough does imply a key point we’ve been featuring in the continuing analysis of the ObamaCare campaign: Planning. Giving his response, I believe that McDonough believes Team Obama did a poor job in planning, but not in the sense that they failed to write a book called the ObamaCare Persuasion Plan – they did – but because they assumed the plan would work once it became operational.

To me that suggests Team Obama failed to count the change at key steps along the operation, just assuming that The Plan was working without gathering data along with way. Only until The Plan failed massively did anyone realize that they were not checking it. Some folks make a distinction between process evaluation and outcome evaluation. Process evaluation counts things related to the campaign operations – how many minutes of media time have aired, how many print ads have gone out, how many hours of volunteer time on the phone. Outcome evaluation counts primarily the TACTs – in this case the number of enrollees.

McDonough’s response can be understood as marking a failure in process evaluation. Team Obama just let the Plan rip and waited to count the enrollees instead of counting the process markers which would have revealed problems much sooner.

Or not.

Again recall McDonough’s line: “But I’m not going to bare that to you today.” He’s still not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and in so not doing, maintains his panther status. In other words, we still don’t know precisely why things went sideways so fast and then recovered so well. Nobody writes honest confessions about practical persuasion. Honesty makes you too famous.

The politics of ObamaCare muddy the persuasion waters. Everyone’s got a position on this issue and that biases everyone’s analysis. You can only draw your own conclusions and work from there which is another way of saying you need a lot of salt, lime, and tequila when you read my take on this.

Regardless of the politics of ObamaCare, I perceive it as a badly failed persuasion campaign that could have and should have been a success given the resources available. McDonough’s observations about the Plan versus Planning indicate to me that a lot of persuasion idiots had input to the Plan because only persuasion idiots think their Plan will need no Planning once it hits the ground. What I call the First Campaign failed.

And while the Second Campaign hit the magic number, it is obvious that the number is magic. You can use it for the politics, but if you count with the cold persuasion heart of a panther, there’s not much change to count. All the independent data on ObamaCare enrollees indicates that a smaller proportion were the crucial targeted Other Guys – previously uninsured and healthy adults. A larger chunk of the 7 million were either previously enrolled in a health insurance plan or else were uninsured and unhealthy. And, we’re still facing nearly 40 million uninsured adults who now face fines for noncompliance. Whither Nudge?

And, you can see the failure in ObamaCare with the active presence of the Third Campaign operating with a number of Democrats up for re-election. Several Representatives and Senators who voted for ObamaCare in 2010 are now availing themselves of wiggle room as they confront an electorate with a decidedly mixed opinion of the law. Those politicians are now running the Third Campaign that permits them to be both for and against ObamaCare now. If the persuasion campaign had been a ripping success, everyone would be shouting ObamaCare Today, Tomorrow, and Forever.

Now think of the hundreds of millions of dollars that were available for this campaign both from the Fed and Big Insurance. This was one of the largest and best funded persuasion campaigns aimed at behavior change ever created. It’s been in the works since 2010. This is like doing D-Day in World War II with Saving Private Ryan and not like responding after the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor. Team Obama had everything it needed to launch a successful campaign.

McDonough only hints at the practical problems in this persuasion failure at that Plan versus Planning distinction. We are left to read the tea leaves which means different panthers will see different lessons. Politics passed the law and left it to persuasion to implement. If you ever wondered at the difference between politics and persuasion, you now have a great example.

a Cool Table Play with Your Tax Dollars At Work

If you are old or extremely hip, you’ll recall the Golden Fleece award from Senator William Proxmire, the late Democratic Senator from Wisconsin. Proxmire devised a clever way to attract media attention with his Fleece awards, given regularly at press conferences and aimed at exposing what he thought were foolish examples of spending tax dollars. An infamous example revealed a Department of Justice study that questioned why prisoners wanted to get out of jail. While the award was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it helped make the point that your tax dollars buy some unusual goods and services. Plus, it put the Senator in front of cameras and in a good light. Jeepers, who can complain about an elected official mocking government waste?

Pivot on the idea of spotlighting government spending, but turn from the cost side to the benefit side: the Golden Goose Award! Another Democratic Congressman, this time a Representative, has developed a tactic to garner press attention, but this time to honor government funded research that produced benefits to society! Who can complain about your tax dollars at work that actually work? And better still, Proxmire never created an concrete icon for his award, but the Goose herders have.

Golden Goose Awards

Now. Follow the details.

While Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN) started this idea, he’s going way beyond Proxmire’s tactic of earning favorable media attention for himself. He’s built an interesting Cool Table for the Golden Goose Award.

The organizations sponsoring the Golden Goose Award — which include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of ScienceInsider), the Association of American Universities, and the Progressive Policy Institute — hope to award it annually starting this fall. Nominations will be reviewed by an eight-member selection committee that includes Bruce Alberts, the editor-in-chief of Science, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter as well as university research officials.

So. The guys who benefit from government funding – like the members of AAAS or AAU – pick the winners of the Golden Goose Award and then the guys who provide the government funding announce those winners. No one who actually provides the tax dollars (like you) has anything to say about this award. Just the guys who spend your taxes and the guys who get your taxes.

A government official is trying to make himself look good by cherry picking winners given to him by the fruit farmers who get subsidies from that official. Gee. No conflict of interests in this Cool Table. Better still this Cool Table is built and served in good Sicilian style: as a cold dish.

Alan Leshner, who leads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was once a target of a Golden Fleece when studying why rats use exercise wheels. (The answer: To regulate body composition — the same reason people run.) Speaking to a group of scientists and legislators, Leshner said he suspects his project wasn’t the only one unfairly ridiculed by the Wisconsin senator.

“I’m sure each of you could think of Golden Fleece recipients who could go ‘Na-na-na-na-na-na’ today,” he said.

See all the persuasion and little of the science. Proxmire invented a clever play that permitted him to look good and responsible, spotlighting government waste, while doing nothing to stop the waste. Cooper, the AAAS, and fellow travelers take the play and move it to a revolving Cool Table play that extols the virtues of Golden research while hiding the conflicts of interests between those who give subsidies and those who receive them pretending all the while to be independent parties.

By comparison, Proxmire’s Golden Fleece award was a pretty obvious piece of persuasion while the current Golden Goose award hides the persuasion in plain sight. The Goose is a double-inside job, like a bank owner hiring bank robbers to cover bad losses.

Let’s get out of here on a Rule.

You Cannot Persuade a Falling Apple.

P.S. Jeepers, who knew that scientists were so thin skinned they can’t take public criticism about their work? Especially with tax dollars. Somehow recipients of tax funded programs think the money is earned income rather than welfare, whoops, a grant. The Fed alone gives out annually over $130 billion a year in research and development funding and requires little public accounting beyond filling out paperwork (which the unversity grant office handles, anyway). Welfare queens and unemployment cheats get greater scrutiny than profs on grants.

P.P.S. Chase down Daniel Greenberg’s books on politics, science, and money. This Wiki is a good start. You’ll find a lot of vampires, panthers, and werewolves in white lab coats.

P.P.P.S. Bankers hiring robbers to steal as a cover for bad losses? That’s The Getaway with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw!


P.P.P.P.S. Who’d want an award that looks like and is called a goose? And, you get the goose for laying eggs. Yeah. Paint it gold and that makes it like a Nobel.

When 0.03% Is A Lot . . . of Sincerity

Consider the news.

CBS Kids Guns

Guns hurt kids! A lot. Nearly 20 hospitalizations a day just for kids hurt from guns!

“These data highlight the toll of gun-related injuries that extends beyond high-profile cases, and those children and adolescents who die before being hospitalized,” Dr. John Leventhal, a professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, said in a press release.

And this.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told HealthDay that people do not realize how common firearm injuries are.

Well, just how common is common? Consider the table of data that launched this ship.
Kid Gun Table

Note first that circled number on the lower right, 7391. That’s the number of hospitalizations for kids up to 19 years old for gun injuries in 2009. The article persuasively provides no base rate here and only works the numbers in its database. Let’s do some comparing with those 7391 cases.

In 2009 there were about 34,000,000 total hospitalizations for Americans. So, divide the kid gun injury number by 34,000,000 and you get:


Now one percent is written as:


So 0.0001% is considerably less than just 1.000%. But, that mixes kids with everyone else including adults and for all causes. Let’s use another base rate.

In 2009 there were about 3,000,000 total hospitalizations in the US for people under 21 (21 isn’t 19, but I cannot find a source that defines “kids” as 19 and under). So, divide the kid gun injury number by the total hospitalization number for all kids and you get:

0.002% hospitalization rate for gun injury in 2009 for kids compared to all kid hospitalizations.

One percent would be:

1.0000%. The rate here is:


That’s how common it is for a kid to be hospitalized in the US for a gun injury compared to all kids hospitalized.

Now, let’s consider the numbers yet another way. Look at this table from a different source that looks at all kids (again under 21) and their cause of hospitalization in 2009.

All Kid Hospitalization 2009

Note at the top of the graph the line for totals in the injury and poisoning category. It’s 287,000 cases for any kind of injury or poisoning. Remember the researchers found 7391 gun injuries. Let’s divide that by 287,000. That’s about 0.03% of this tighter category called injury and poisoning.

In summary for 2009, 34 million people got hospitalized, about 3 million kids got hospitalized, about 300,000 kids for any kind of injury or poisoning, and if we include criminal acts for kid gun injury, we get 7391 cases. Gun injury in kids accounts for:

0.0001% of all hospitalizations.

0.002% of all kid hospitalizations.

0.03% of all kid injury and poisoning hospitalizations.

And that is a “common occurrence.”

I’ll let you peruse the original research table for details about different categories of age (considering 19 year olds as “kids,” for example) and cause of injury (assault versus unintentional, for example). Calling all these 7391 cases as innocent kids struck down by guns seems to require liberal use of the General Semantics Persuasion Play©™®. Remove those 60% of cases caused by assault, and the rate of hospitalization for preventable (accident, suicide, undetermined) gun injury gets even less than 0.0001% or 0.002% or 0.03%.

We can all agree that injury is a bad thing, especially in younger people. But, when you realize that even with a generous definition of kid and including criminal causes for the injury, the rate of hospitalization is incredibly small. The persuasion implication now is the continuing persuasion incompetence of gun control advocates.

Here the advocates are wearing white lab coats, trying to appear as concerned, but objective, experts. They design a needle-in-haystack database then headline they’ve found a needle factory when they are only distorting words to mislead about numbers. And, if you read the comments to the CBS news story, you see the skepticism among the readers, even beyond the knee-jerk politics. While this is supposed to be irrefutable science, it is nothing but another way to polarize Other Guys.

If you are a gun control panther, you need to do something about the American medical community. They are killing any chance of effective persuasion. They persist with bad science that everyone can see and that only antagonizes or alienates the Other Guys they need to change. They engage this faux science of bad counting and try to fool people with false precision and white lab coats. That gets headlines and creates no persuasion.

The Rules.

If You Can’t Succeed, Don’t Try.

All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.

Consider this if you desire federal gun control legislation.

Convene a prawns ‘n plaques conference and invite all these ineffective Sinceres. Praise them to the heavens. Give them awards. Individual awards. With their names spelled correctly. Let them speak for as long as each wants upon acceptance. Ask them to speak directly about their values on this issue. Now serve prawns with a lot of bread and wine.

Then invite them into a secret society that pledges silence to let anti-NRA vampires, panthers, and werewolves go to work with the promise that they will reconvene in five years to consider the changes. Promise to publicly revoke the award and rebuke the holder if anyone breaks omerta. Then have a plant deliberately speak out a few months later and put the hit on him. Then he privately recants his failure and you give back the award.

If you could get these Sinceres out of the way for five years, you might actually get some federal gun control legislation passed and with red support. With these Sinceres in the room, all the Other Guys are wary and skeptical and mistrustful of any proposal because they rightfully believe the Sinceres would repeal the 2nd Amendment and outlaw guns. With these Sinceres silent and on the sidelines, you can follow the NRA playbook in reverse and get some persuasion going.

Start here. Did you notice in the last graph how many older kids are hospitalized for mental and emotional illness? From ages 10 to 19 nearly 300,000 were admitted for just that single cause in 2009. Are there no implications for violence prevention there? Nearly 40 times as many kids are hospitalized for mental and emotional illness as from gun injury. Do you see a neutral common ground?

Of course, if you are a wily gun control panther, none of this really matters. You can do your business with or without Sinceres as long as you don’t care about the outcomes of gun violence. We are beyond good and evil and as long as you can count the change you most desire, it’s all good persuasion!

a Climate for Failure with Cool Tables

Climate Change changers provide a compelling, useful, and on-going case study of persuasion failure. Everyone knows the sky is falling and knows why the sky is falling and how to stop the sky from falling, yet no one is doing anything to stop the sky from falling. This can only occur if you are lousy at persuasion. (Or lousy at science, but let’s concede that for the moment. The sky is falling, we know why, and we can stop it, but we don’t.) Why this persuasion failure?

We’ve looked at numerous examples in the Persuasion Blog, but they tend to be specific and focused examples that ignore the broader sweep and scope of Climate Change changers. I’ve now found a helpful source that traces the Local of Climate Change changers almost from the beginning through at least 2012. The authors are participant-observers, that is, both academic researchers trying to understand the Other Guys while also being part of the Other Guys themselves. They believe in Climate Change and they are also curious about how the thing works, or in this case, doesn’t. They provide that sweep and scope in a qualitative analysis of this persuasion case. Let’s begin at their end.

In closing, our study contributes to understanding why, despite the widespread agreement on the urgency of mitigating climate change and of developing adaptation mechanisms, powerful actors still seem unwilling and unable to subscribe to a single course of action and to provide an effective solution.

Thus, these insider researchers, who’ve participated in most of the major UN sponsored meetings, believe that the Climate Change changers have failed. They have not persuaded key Other Guys to do anything useful for solving the problem. So, in this research report, published in a peer review journal, people who are qualified observers (and believers) report on their observations of the major source of Climate Change persuasion, the various United Nations groups, the players working in that context, and the characteristics of that Local. Consider this foundational observation.

Hardy and Maguire (2010) argued that field-configuring events can catalyze change because they provide discursive spaces not normally available: they are temporally bounded, special moments in the life of a field and facilitate interactions among field members that do not usually interact.

Translated into practical persuasion this means people combine into large transnational units that can change the world through the use of communication (discursive spaces that facilitate interaction) among members with deadlines (temporally bounded, special moments). More compactly: Cool Tables with time limits.

While transnational units exhaust the universe for communication Locals (unless E.T. is out there), you can still apply this idea to any setting where all the Other Guys can be divided into smaller segments of groups. In the Fed, I lived in a Local segmented by branch of government (Executive, Legislative, or Judicial), then within branch, different Agencies (Defense, Commerce, Labor, HHS, and so on), then within any Agency, many different Centers, Institutes, and Offices, and on and on with the Fed organizational chart. Even if you are living in the Local called a Mom and Pop business, you can segment by customers, suppliers, and so on. In other words, the transnational nature of this Local is big, but still just different groups of Other Guys in the Local.

You then construct Cool Tables and populate them with representatives from the various segments. Now add time limits for their interactions. And, while they are communicating, they are communicating in discursive spaces which means everyone gets their turn at the microphone while everyone else (theoretically) listens. Such interaction will cause everyone to understand everyone else, discover areas of agreement, and through the pressure of known and shared deadlines, will create action. While not made explicit in this paper, I also believe the central motivating force behind all this is that irrefutable, irrevocable, and irresistible science. The Apple is Falling.

I’ve seen this work before.

Just as I was joining NIOSH in the late 1990s, they had completed a nationwide series of town hall meetings with anyone remotely interested in workplace health and safety. From these meetings, NIOSH developed a list of specific areas for research which had widespread concern and support. They refined both the items and their wording by forming content committees who discussed a specific area in depth with those Other Guys most concerned about it. From this iterative Cool Table operation emerged NORA, the National Occupational Research Agenda.

NIOSH leadership then took NORA to the President and Congress and got the best kind of change you can count: Funding. NIOSH got the funding because of the Cool Table operation. Other Guys who participated in the Cool Table town hall meetings or committee work called the President or their Congressional representatives and persuaded for both NORA in general and their specific area in particular.

The people behind the play knew what already existed, but let the Other Guys on the Cool Table discover it for themselves in public. This process not only let the Cool Table show off, but also built a natural constituency to advocate, support, and work the research area. The Cool Table also functioned as a reliable source of public knowledge and its distribution, so that over time almost everyone with even a minimal interest in workplace health and safety knew about the Cool Table and its operations. You can use the Cool Table as a sleeper hold, as I often recommend, but you can also use it to make things happen.

So, you can combine large and diverse groups of Other Guys, glide them into discursive spaces with plenty of time at the microphone while a clock is running and you will get both ideas and action that then leads to the big change you want to count.

It. Does. Work.

Why not with Climate Change changers? The researchers offer four detailed observations explaining why things with the UN Climate Change changers have failed so far. We’ll take them one at a time.

. . . we find that field-configuring events over time ceased to be interactionally open and temporally bounded as diverse actors with vested interests entered the field, power coalitions shifted, and the events became platforms for issues not strictly related to emission reduction. Under such conditions, the deliberate staging of the Copenhagen high-stakes event in 2009 to induce a sense of urgency in the climate negotiations prevented institutional change and resulted in an ongoing delay of substantive policy decisions.

Stated in persuasion terms, the discursive space became so open and so crowded that nothing got done. When planners realized this, they gambled on a “high stakes” Cool Table meeting in 2009 at Copenhagen that forced everyone to either work together . . . or not, as it turned out. Self interest usually beats Other interest.

Realize that Cool Tables should operate with tight control of who gets in. This quote explains that the UN process lost that control and just about anyone who was both noisy and rude could push into the Cool Table. Sure, there’s the dynamic tension here of being open and democratic versus enforcing rules from an open and democratic process. The UN changers failed to keep the Cool Table closed and defined as they practiced eternal open discursive spaces.

Now, this.

Because an overarching authority is missing in transnational fields, rules, norms, and understandings are continuously (re)negotiated and often highly ambiguous to include diverse actors and logics (Djelic & Quack, 2011).

And we know why the UN changers failed to keep the Cool Table closed and defined. Nobody had sufficient power or persuasion to enforce any interaction rules in the open discursive spaces. Even after the Cool Table first met and defined rules, no one enforced them and worse still, the Cool Table got bigger and bigger with more frequent rule violations and abuse of open discursive spaces. The consequences here are both obvious and destructive. Yet, no one did anything about it. Why?

I take recourse to the Rule of There Are No Laws and you see that here. Why did no one in this UN change process cowboy up and enforce rules, discipline, and focus? Who knows? The UN is always haunted with a lack of power whether in terms of guns and money or political legitimacy. It lacks sovereignty. But, even past that, if you’ve watched enough John Wayne movies, you know that one guy can stand up in the crowd, enforce justice, and things work out. Why has there been no one guy or even on small group of guys who rode herd on the rest to enforce the rules everyone had made?

And, it’s not like this oversight requires a horse, a gun, and the Duke. During the NORA process, NIOSH leadership had some power with money and access, but nothing decisive. However, that leadership controlled those town hall meetings and committees and locked down entrance and exit. They persistently kept to the public rules of NORA and enforced them personally, not with money or access. They just ruled both formally and informally the way effective group leaders (and persuaders) do. Apparently no single person or group in the UN process has ever operated like this. Stated another way, there’s no leadership in the UN Climate Change changer process.

So, here we are in our open discursive spaces, jibber-jabbering without fear of consequence, eating time while watching the clock count down, each pursuing our individual interest. Guess what happens?

. . . our findings suggest that the effects of field-configuring events are closely tied to emotions, so that analyzing such events can enrich recent efforts to understand the emotional dimension of institutional work (Voronov & Russ, 2012). Ritualistic performances afford shared emotional experiences and are often deliberately crafted to that end (Dacin, Munir, & Tracey, 2010); social movements partly gain their mobilization potential from emotions such as passion and feelings of solidarity (Flam & King, 2005; Goodwin, Jasper & Polletta, 2001; Goodwin, 2007). At the same time, our study has shown that heightened emotionality can also obstruct change under specific field conditions.

While certainly true of human nature, this observation damns the UN change process as little more than a pecking party. In the midst of doing science-based public policy, the UN change process permitted emotionality to dominate the discursive space. Of course, people will get fired up on big issues that personally involve them. That’s known and given. Any change process that does not recognize and control this only indicts its own incompetence. Here you see the flip side of the Wisdom of the Crowd. Crowds tend to encourage emotionality as they rampage down either the Peripheral Route or the Biased Central Route.

The Cool Table devolved into the Mob. An elite Mob. A scientific Mob. A sincere, passionate, and committed Mob. But a Mob.

When you have open discursive spaces and no one enforcing any kind of rules, you will soon get the Crowd at the Cool Table. Anyone who has worked with groups of humans at any age knows that groups without enforced norms of conduct will devolve into source material for the next version of Lord Of The Flies. No cohesion. No focus. No product. Just a lot of discursive open space filled with self interest and emotion.

And, especially when you point the Cool Table in this direction.

The field of climate policy is an extreme case of a transnational field, because the need to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions not only mobilizes governments, international and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private sector actors, and research institutes all around the world (Orr, 2006), but also requires that millions of organizations and individuals change their production and consumption patterns, which implies a changed economic system for a threat that lies largely in the future (Giddens, 2009; Levy & Egan, 2003).

We arrive at the Ground Zero for this case study failure. This is the TACT statement. This is what we want all the Other Guys not at the Cool Table to do. The Target Action Context and Time. The Who does What Where and When.

Can you believe the scope and range of this TACT? It is absurd on the face of it, a massive leap of faith while doing science. Gee. Imagine that it is difficult to get 6 billion people to agree on the same threat and same solution that involves changed national and international economic systems? I realize that there are also much more specific TACTs in the various UN IPCC statements, but the general structure is both so vague and so wide as to strain common sense. Who thinks like this?

The cluelessness of this orientation to the TACTs exposes the wide ranging incompetence and inexperience of the UN Climate Change changers. They think they have irrefutable science that will motivate and discipline Cool Table representatives to restrain their human nature, emotional responding, and self-interested biases, play fair and nice with everyone else, and convince 6 billion Other Guys to change the foundations of their economies.

Of course, this error is not unique to Climate Change changers, but is common among those we know as the Sinceres. While Sinceres are authentic and often motivated to make you and your world a better place, all of their activity only presents, defends, or justifies themselves and their Sincerity. It almost never focuses upon or produces a change anyone can count in those Other Guys who need Sincere help. When you are Sincere, you are also Certain which makes you a double persuasion muggle.

The description of the people and their communication at these UN open discursive spaces provides an excellent illustration of Sincerity in action. It is nothing but irony to behold authentic experts joined together by science and torn apart by persuasion. Even with the Falling Apple in their hands, they cannot resist the persuasion gravity of the Fallen Apple as they fill precious time and space with their Sincerity at the expense of saving the Other Guys from a falling sky.

Read the Rules and pick the violations that seem most relevant, poignant, or destructive. These seem most obvious to me.

All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

If You Can’t Succeed, Don’t Try.

It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid.

Persuasion Is Strategic or It Is Not.

Drive with Science, Putt with Poetry.

You Cannot Persuade a Falling Apple.

If You Can’t Count It, You Can’t Change It.

All People Always Resist Significant Change.

Persuaders Can Either Be Famous or Effective, But Not Both.

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

Past the Rule violations, please catch the lessons with this applied Cool Table. That play is extremely effective with large and diverse groups of Other Guys. You can capture a small number, put them on a Cool Table with rules, enforce those rules, and that Cool Table can produce what you want. They will discover what you already know, form alliances, generate commitment, publicize you and your idea, product, or service, and act as a persuasion agent on your behalf. (And, alternatively, you can use a Cool Table to distract idiots who are in your way. Same principles of operation, just a different persuasion goal.)

Here we see Climate Change changers trying the Cool Table play, but only for their own Sincerity. The absence of control and rules, the vague and nebulous TACTs, and rampant human nature destroy the application, but not the principle. Failure proves the foolishness of the muggle, not the persuasion play.

Schüßler, E., Rüling, C.-C., and Wittneben, B. (2014): On melting summits: The limitations of field-configuring events as catalysts of change in transnational climate policy. Academy of Management Journal, 57, 140-171.

Cut and paste this link to a preprint of the paper as of April 2014.

Journalism Confirms Persuasion Blog Science versus CDC Science

Good grief. I’m dizzy.

Reuters on CDC Obesity Count


Here’s how we looked at that CDC Tooth Fairy Tale nearly three weeks before this article and shortly after the CDC press releases hit the information marketplace.

While the overall population of the study shows no change, you can pick segments of Good News (decrease in kids aged 2-5) and ignore that Bad News (increase in women over 60). And, of course, there are a lot more women over 60 than there are kids between 2 and 5 which further diminishes the cherry-picked finding.

No one predicted directional changes in kids aged 2-5 and women over 60, so this is just navigating by the stars or the asterisks indicating statistical significance within subgroups. Hey, it is Stat 101. When’s there’s no change in the group, there’s no change in the sub-groups either regardless of what the stars say.

The Reuters journalist, Sharon Begley, quotes several experts in her piece, saying pretty much the same thing now that we observed then. Hey! We remain under the radar, panthers, vampires, and werewolves. You are at least minutes, hours, days, weeks, dare I say it, years, ahead of all those pop press FauxItAlls.

Here’s the fun quote from the Reuters article.

A CDC spokeswoman said the lead author of the JAMA study, Cynthia Ogden, “is not doing any media interviews,” but acknowledged that “the sample size is somewhat small so the (ranges of values) are a little wide.”

Of course, that’s not how Ogden put it three weeks ago when she started the CDC Good News Tour that so pleased First Lady Michelle Obama.

“This is the first time we’ve seen any indication of any significant decrease in any group,” said Cynthia Ogden, a researcher for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the author of the report, which will be published in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, on Wednesday. “It was exciting.”

Apparently Ogden no longer believes herself. She wisely remains cloistered in her cubicle unavailable for press comment as she works on the next CDC Tooth Fairy Tale.

See the glorious persuasive science. The CDC tells Tales, grabs headlines, and gratifies Mrs. Obama. The press objectively dotes on the Tale and repeats it with no critical stance other than adoration. Where’s anyone speaking truth to power? Then nearly a one month later, another journalist zigs on the zag and grabs some attention for herself. Is America thinning and winning? Is America fat and only that? Who knows? This story gets told both ways. From the same NHANES database!

The CDC has the best available scientific data from the NHANES population surveys and destroys all that value with its self-serving persuasion plays. And the CDC wonders why they have no credibility past the protection of the boss or boss’s wife in the White House.

All Bad Science Is Persuasive.

But, don’t lose the science. The NHANES population survey is the best source of information on the questions it asks and no one walking the planet has better data. No one. You just have to stick to the questions asked and answered with NHANES and not invent Fairy Tales from it.

Hitting the Number with ObamaCare

Pencils down, stop writing (good grief, do people still take tests like that?). Time to count the first change with ObamaCare. According to Fox News (Fox!!!) . . .

On the last day to sign up for ObamaCare, the program apparently was on track to sign up more than 7 million Americans for insurance coverage, though the number of enrollees who have paid for their insurance premiums is still unclear.

A source confirmed to Fox News on Tuesday that the system was on track to see 7 million sign-ups. President Obama, as his team continues to tally sign-ups, plans to deliver a statement in the Rose Garden at 4:15 p.m. ET on the Affordable Care Act.

Even Fox News is reporting that Team Obama will either pass, hit, or come real close to the original public number of 7 million enrollees. That wildly exceeds my prior pessimistic guess, proving once again that I am no prophet of true predictions. Given the disastrous start in October 2013, I’d read the messy tea leaves to see a handicap that could not be overcome. Yet Team Obama managed to rise above that PR and persuasion disaster to hear Fox News declare the change counted out to 7 million or thereabouts.

My prior analysis clearly underestimated the impact of both the quantity and quality of the persuasion campaign both Big Fed and Big Insurance ran. Media sources like the Associated Press estimated that Big Fed alone would spend about $650 million for the effort, but that’s just a guess. To my knowledge, there’s no official number from either the White House or a source like the Government Accounting Office. So, we can only estimate. That’s about 100 dollars per enrollee.

Assuming that guess is close, let’s do some more back of the envelop for the next persuasion budget. We got 6.5 million new enrollees for $650 million of persuasion. We started with 48 million uninsured. If all the new enrollees were previously uninsured, we’ve now got 40 something million to go. At 100 dollars per enrollee that works out to a persuasion budget of $4 billion dollars. And, of course, none of this math includes estimates from Big Insurance.

While I’ve been proven an idiot who cannot count the future change, I’ll persist with as much humility as I can muster, and offer a continuing persuasion analysis.

First, and foremost, a big Hell, Yeah to Team Obama for their dogged drive and creative adjustment. That October Surge was about as bad a persuasion start as you can make and still remain in the game. Team Obama hung tough, focused, adapted, and pushed on.

Second, I’d like to know more about the adaptations in detail. In outline it appears that Team Obama removed key personnel, brought in better talent, and probably simplified the lines of authority and responsibility. Snatching success from this initial failure will be an interesting case study in practical persuasion. From my Fed experience, I will testify that key personnel and a personally engaged President make many things possible. If the guy in the Oval Office is making calls, stalking the hallways, and yanking people by the hair, the system tends to fall in step. This solves many of the vices of committee persuasion.

Third, I have no idea where this goes. The deadline for enrollment is over, so that kind of counting stops, but we’ve still got over 40 million people uninsured. Even if Team Obama got 7 million brand new, formerly uninsured to pay premiums in this persuasion campaign, that leaves nearly six times as many still uninsured. Man, that’s a lot of Other Guys unchanged.

Fourth – and let me underscore that I’m predicting here and we know my track record on that – I think that Team Obama is publicly happy about hitting 7 million enrolled and privately stunned that it’s only 7 million. I think they believed a $650 million persuasion campaign would be the face that launched a thousand ships. Goodness, the goal of ObamaCare is 48 million uninsured in the system. Yeah, we got 7 million, but that’s about 1 out of 7 leaving 6 out of 7 to go. ObamaCare began as your friendly government here to help with a funny President doing the talk show circuit. Now, by law, it converts to your mean government with fines, penalties, and nagging reminders of your failure to comply.

Fifth, if you enjoy doing persuasion, you’ve got to love this challenge. You’ve still got the White House and the Executive Branch at your command and a willing and committed partner in Big Insurance. And while things look tough for the mid term elections of November 2014, remember: You only have to be better than your opponent on Election Day.

This case study with ObamaCare requires thought about Strategy, Tactics, and Operations. Team Obama did a pretty standard national persuasion campaign, very much along the lines of a political campaign. Whether that is the right approach for enacting a law like ObamaCare concerns Strategy. Is getting health insurance like voting? Should you make the implementation of a law something like the opening of a movie? Normally, a law is run as a big Skinner Box with a set of When-Do-Gets that are announced then enforced. Today you pay a tax. Today you drive a speed limit. Today you recycle. Whatever.

That kind of Skinner Box is a very different kind of persuasion than Obama Between the Ferns with Zach.

Death, Taxes, and Help Centers

In the midst of the annual agony I experienced a novel moment with the TurboTax help center. I’m trapped in the exquisite torture only technology can deliver where two different computer systems communicate perfectly but for one discrepancy that destroys all prior activity. The Fed and TurboTax say they hold hands, but, alas, for me they do not. So, I call the Help Center.

While speaking to the Agent I notice long periods of silence. Since this transaction is unfolding on my cell phone and her call center, I worry that the long silence means a satellite has closed its window on my narrow stretch of the mountain. I prompt her by name and she quickly replies, “I’m here.” Reassured I wait through the next silence thinking again of windows and satellites until I’m sure this time the connection is gone and prompt her, only to receive a quick, “I’m here.”

This pattern repeats for several minutes until the Agent discloses:

“I’m just waiting for my help line to answer.”

I’ve called a Help Center and the Help Center puts me on live-hold . . . to call her Help Center?!?


TurboTax has a Help Line for its personnel in the Help Center!

I view every service interaction as a golden persuasion moment. You are live with the human face of Corporatism. When Other Guys contact Help Centers they are often verging on murder or suicide. In other words, they are deep in the throes of emotional responding. In persuasion terms, such Other Guys are Bolivian Banks, easy, ripe, and luscious for persuasion plays. A panther can convert all that incipient violence or despair into a change you can count.

And TurboTax makes me wait on live-hold while my Help waits for her Help.

This means, of course, that TurboTax is beyond persuasion and has more change than it can count. Hurrah for them and their successful occupation of a niche that needs no assistance from Peitho or competence! Monopoly forever!

For the rest of the vampires and werewolves in the coffins and forests, see the persuasion lessons. Certainly your Help may need assistance, but you can never let Other Guys see the help your Help needs. Talk about the man behind the curtain and yet another man behind a curtain.

Past that commonplace, I still maintain all service interactions are rich persuasion chances. You can own Other Guys with persuasive Help.

Unless you think you have a monopoly. Then you can layer your Help Centers like the organizational chart for the Federal government.

Aversive Skinner Boxes at the Grocery Store

Here’s the Local.

Folks living in the community participate in a pre-existing program that gives them a cash-back incentive for buying healthier foods. What’s especially useful in this program is that everyone has completed a detailed application form and is given a machine readable card that gets scanned with all purchases. You can do a very good job of counting here.

A team of researchers desires to increase usage of the healthy buying program and decides upon a persuasion intervention. They invite Other Guys to participate in a new plan that is a voluntary and aversive Skinner Box. Each month, Other Guys have to increase their purchase of healthy foods by 5 percentage points over baseline. If the Other Guys fail to hit this increase, they lose the existing cash-back incentive and have a debit in that amount applied to their credit card. You see the aversive Skinner Box.

When (buying in this program) Do (purchase less than a 5 point increase in specific items) Get (a loss charged to credit card).

You can easily imagine living in this Box and Play. Everyone has those loyalty cards where you get various benefits when you purchase particular items under specific conditions. Imagine now that you get an email contact from such a source, offering you a chance to participate in the Skinner Box I just described. You. Are. There.

Some people won’t even open the email. Some will read it and discard it. Others will click on the link to see what happens. Some will go all the way and actually agree to play in the Skinner Box. If you do it right, you can apply random assignment with this offer and compare those who reject the offer (no commitment) and those who accept it (commitment). And you can compare them to people who got no choice and no Skinner Box (control). Now, let this thing run for 6 months. Remember, commitment folks have to increase their purchasing behavior 5 points over baseline each month or else get the aversive consequence. Here’s a graph of the results over time with our three groups.

Aversive Grocery Purchase Graph

The x-axis is time and the y-axis is percentage of healthy food purchases. Clearly, two groups, control and no commitment, don’t change much and appear to be decreasing, while the commitment group in the aversive Skinner Box spikes up and zigs a bit, but higher than our two comparison groups. Remembering the admonition to make no decisions based on graphic data, we look at the numbers instead of pretty pictures.

Aversive Grocery Table of Statistics

Orient. Across the top you see the percentage of purchase by three types, essentially good, neutral, or bad. In the left column you see the condition of the analysis – baseline, intervention, and most importantly the two big interaction terms with a condition by time. I’ve circled the important one that contains the Special Sauce, that voluntary, aversive Skinner Box.

As you can discern, the Skinner Box Guys did increase purchase of good food while decreasing purchase of neutral and bad foods. And, the changes are statistically significant. And, better still, the Guys who did not commit to the Skinner Box (the line just above the circled numbers) didn’t move at all. The aversive Skinner Box works! Here’s how the researchers open and close this.

Governments and private companies are increasingly offering incentive programs to encourage healthier lifestyles (e.g., Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 2010). Motivated consumers will undoubtedly be drawn to these programs with good intentions of eating healthier foods, smoking less, and exercising more . . .

Here, we have shown that there is some hope, as many people recognize their self-control problems and, in such moments of self-awareness, may also welcome an opportunity to create an environment that makes it easier to do what is right.

Let’s analyze this.

While this research appears in a peer review journal, I am unfamiliar with the literature called Increasing Compliance With Government And Corporations. Same with the literature of Doing The Right Thing. This is a change study and whether, why, and how it relates to Government, Corporations, and Right Things is utterly irrelevant to the science of the change. This is just a guess on my part, but if TACT had been, say, increasing sales of hollow point 9mm ammunition by 5 percentage points, I think the editor and reviewers at Psychological Science might have read this paper differently. You, too, maybe.

If you read the paper differently, you have to note something the researchers don’t underline: It didn’t hit the stated goal of increasing purchases by 5 points. This was pitched as both a test of an aversive Skinner Box and hitting a target. Regardless of whether we are aiming our TACT at kale or steel, we missed.

It is true that the aversive Skinner Box did increase purchases of the targeted TACT and that the increase was statistically significant, and it only occurred in the Skinner Box and not with the other two comparison groups. But, it wasn’t 5 points and in fact it averaged about 3 points, which is one third of a Small Windowpane. And, this might over-estimate the true effect.

If you ran statistical tests of trend in the Skinner Box group, I fear you would find a statistically significant downward drop over time. That would lead one to hypothesize if you let this Box and Play run longer, it would return to baseline. Only because the size of the database is so large and in that repeated measures design that we have so much statistical power that we can detect changes this small. And, only because no one looked, we don’t test and potentially detect that declining trend of success.

Perhaps the aversive Skinner Box did achieve very small change you can count, but count fast! The change goes away quickly which is another way of saying any change here did not hit the Central Route with new attitudes and behaviors that persist over time, resist counter-attacks, and predict future actions. Or worse, the change did hit the Central Route and the Other Guys moved from the aversive Skinner Box to the Direct Experience Persuasion Play©™®; they tried it and didn’t like it.

You need to read the paper to follow the trail of Other Guys and just how this thing played out. The research started the play with a population of 6500 households eligible for participation. That dwindled down to approximately 2000 households who read enough of the email to get to the choice phase. Of those 2000 households, 632 volunteered for the Skinner Box, 36%. You see the practical problem for doing this play in the Local where you live. It’s hard to get the Other Guys in this Box.

Finally, this research was conducted with the cooperation of a Corporation in South Africa whose business is health insurance. The health insurance policy includes this grocery cash-back incentive card as part of the coverage for policy holders. Just let those possibilities percolate for a moment and consider how that affects the Local in this research.

Try to imagine executing this play in your own work or business or government or better still your own house. I suspect you’d hit the wall called External Validity which is geekspeak for making this work in other Locals. Under the conditions I’ve sketched out here, you can count a 3% increase that trends down in a few months. This Local is pretty rare air and if you are breathing it, consider this aversive Skinner Box. Otherwise?

Against these concerns, we must note one very compelling strength to this Skinner Box ‘n Play: It costs almost nothing to run. When you sit as a Corporation or a Government with millions to hundreds of millions Other Guys, you can affect very small change with a marketplace, a database, and a network (which you’ve already got) and an email (which this research team would give you for free). If you have already built a Local like this health insurance company has, then you can run this and get some change you can count.

Let’s just focus on the particular health insurance company that cooperated in this project. How does this hit their bottom line?

With an average increase of 3 points, most Other Guys in this Skinner Box lost some of their money. I assume that went to the health insurance company. Sure, it’s only 632 households so this is maybe just a few thousand dollars. The company actually did make some profit on this, but at the expense of costing clients their money. You can’t stay in business too long doing that.

What about the profit you get from healthier clients? Some people bought a few more pieces of fruit and bundles of broccoli. That will not make any physical change to their health which will then reduce their health costs. Might do a bit for psychological demand, meaning that Other Guys who go through this voluntary aversive Skinner Box are not healthier, but they think they are and so don’t get health products or services they might have . . . today. But that’s only postponing the inevitable demand for health services and only briefly.

You could run prosocial persuasion with PR that trumpets this program and builds your branding for Compassion For Our Clients. It’s just a little bullet of information that only cost an email and some counting. You can get pictures and quotes and look and sound Concerned, Innovative, maybe even Sincere.

I just don’t see much practical persuasion here. And, I see costs, risks, and hidden threats.

And, the theory side of this paper is inert unless you are a fan of those literatures of Doing The Right Thing or Compliance With Government and Corporations. The aversive Skinner Box is a very Old Old Thing and we’ve got much better research than this on how to make it work better than this.

The researchers call this voluntary aversive Skinner Box a “precommitment,” but I’m not sure what that means. Without the aversive consequences, nothing happens in this play, and Other Guys cannot get into that Box without knowing about it and agreeing to play in it. That’s informed consent in research or Buyer Beware on the street. I’m not sure how calling it “precommitment” makes any conceptual difference.

Why not call this thing a Nudge and be done with any need for thoughtful theorizing? We’re just messing with the Get side of the When-Do-Get which used to be called Operant Conditioning and is now Behavioral Economics, as if that makes a difference.

Let’s get out of here.

The strengths of this report flow from the natural field study with randomization and great data counting. You can do this quite easily in many settings. And, there is some change to count, even if it is very small and probably short lived. Within the highly specific elements of this Local (the marketplace, great counting, big databases, easy communication) aversive consequences with volunteers will make change.

But, I’m warning you: playing public persuasion games like this is dangerous and unnecessary. You are making the Other Guys trust your warm, kindly, and sympathetic nature as part of the play. When things go sideways, you will take a beating on your character. Survey those Other Guys who had to pay for their failures in this Skinner Box. You think they only blame themselves?

Like all good persuasive science, this paper reads better than it counts. Eating the numbers, so to speak.

Janet Schwartz, Daniel Mochon, Lauren Wyper, Josiase Maroba, Deepak Patel, and Dan Ariely. (2014). Healthier by Precommitment. Psychological Science, first published on January 3, 2014


P.S.  Scientific Persuasion Sidebar . . . do-gooder persuasion that is Sincere is a death wish.  As we’ve seen, Sincere do-gooder persuasion almost always fails to produce meaningful, practical change in the Other Guys while running the persuasion on benevolence and trust.  When you fail to benefit the Other Guys, they will hate you as both an untrustworthy and incompetent expert.  And, don’t try to hide behind the skirts of science here until after you run these Do The Right Thing persuasion plays to increase the sale of guns or access to adoption services for scared pregnant girls or anything else just to the right of kale, baby harp seals, and solar panels.

Do-gooder persuasion that is not Sincere, however, is persuasion.  See Al Gore.  Bill Clinton.  Nest.  Medical testing.  Obama’s commitment to climate change.     Facebook.  Twitter.  Apple.  Google.