Bad TACTs are Good for Persuasion

You may recall this earlier PB Post.

Winston Churchill observed that anyone who is not a liberal when younger has no heart, but anyone who is not a conservative when older has no head. (Cool line, but do you know Winston Churchill, my pretties?) We see the proof of the Prime Minister’s belief in today’s story in the LA Times. They inspect the political data from surveys and report: That as we age we become more conservative. Just like Mr. Churchill asserted.

Except he, the LA Times, their source are wrong.

A 2007 study published in the American Sociological Review examined General Social Survey data from 1972 to 2004, looking specifically at beliefs within a given age cohort about: historically subordinate groups, like whether women should be breadwinners and why African-Americans are poorer than whites; civil liberties for groups outside the mainstream, like homosexuals, communists and atheists; and boundaries of privacy, related things like premarital sex and divorce. The authors found that a given age cohort’s attitudes changed over time — more often later in life — and that “the direction of change is most often toward increased tolerance rather than increased conservatism.”

This according to an NYT writer.

So as we get older we get both more conservative and more liberal! Hurray for all sides! Hurrah for some kind of persuasion!

I suspect wordplay accounts for the distinction. The LA Times research story looked at how people classified themselves as “liberal” or “conservative” and which political party, Democratic or Republican, they registered with. The NYT points to attitudes towards specific beliefs associated with “liberal” or “conservative” positions. You can see the large conceptual difference. If I’m a political consultant, I care more about voter registration and self-identified political philosophy. If I’m a current events guys, then attitudes and beliefs on specific issues draw me in.

But see how persuasion works: Begin with a badly defined TACT.

Nudge RIP

Political observers are drawing a straight line between rising gas prices and President Obama’s falling opinion ratings. Yet any smart observer, political or otherwise, will tell you that Presidents do not and cannot control gas prices.

Consider a recent poll of a panel of economists conducted by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where I teach. (Disclosure: I am a member of the panel; the other respondents are well-respected economists from top universities with varying political views.) The 41 panel members were asked whether they agreed with the following statement: “Changes in U.S. gasoline prices over the past 10 years have predominantly been due to market factors rather than U.S. federal economic or energy policies.” Not a single member of the panel disagreed with the statement.

The writer then provides a rational look at gas prices and the larger market forces that drive them, then makes comparisons to other areas of economic life that are better than energy costs and suggests that Obama should at least get credit for this. All in all, the article is a standard example of a well argued, partisan position for supporting Mr. Obama.

Now, here’s the persuasion twist. The author of this NY Times opinion piece is Dr. Richard Thaler who is more famous for writing another piece, Nudge. You may remember Nudge as the progressive persuasion that would bring the Peripheral Route to the Federal Government and make the world a better place with a wide variety of artful, deep, and scientific Nudges. Other Guys would be Nudged into better diet, more exercise, less drug use, and in general becoming happy, shiny people. Thaler and his partner, Sunstein, proposed Nudge as the wonder weapon for a new society, the persuasion play no one would see, yet change everyone for the better.

As I warned a long time ago, Nudge didn’t work as advertised in the original book and wouldn’t work in the Federal government and now you see it revealed. Mr. Obama is in for a difficult re-election campaign after three years of Nudging. How can he be in such bad political shape when he followed the theory and research of his UChicago brethren, Sunstein and Thaler? He even hired Sunstein to join his Administration. All that Nudging and look where he is. Not only are the courts overturning his laws and regulations, but public opinion is turning against him.

Past all the success Nudge failed to deliver, you see that Thaler himself is repudiating the Nudge as an effective persuasion play in the op-ed piece with the Times. Where’s the Choice Architecture? Where’s the nuance? Where’s the tide beneath the surface? He orates with boilerplate, a letter to the editor that extols the virtues of one against the vices of everyone else. You’ve heard this persuasion play a thousand times and run it yourself in your local paper or with your family or friends or coworkers. The play is rational and reasonable. And worse still, nothing but Sincere, Authentic, and Obvious.

Persuasion mavens, see it. The Nudge was a half-baked Fairy Tale from the start, but the Cool Table took it to the White House anyway. And now even Nudgers won’t Nudge to budge voters or public opinion.

There’s a Difference between Persuasion, and Smoke and Mirrors; With Persuasion the Illusion Lingers.

Groupthink Pop Quiz

How smart do you have to be to understand the persuasion concept, Groupthink? Read.

There’s also a darker side to this effect: In cities, ideas and opinions, like product preferences, can spread virally and congeal into conventional wisdom. Cities thus risk becoming incubators of groupthink.

This overwrought and overwritten example comes courtesy of the Wall Street Journal and terminates with yet another misapplication of the term Groupthink. The story focuses upon differences between iPhone and Android users and then draws those facile conclusions like Groupthinking Cities.

Again. Groupthink is not defined as people coming together because they like the same thing. That’s similarity or homophily in persuasion terms. Groupthink applies to small groups of highly connected people sharing common work goals who permit cohesion to overwhelm frank discussion. The drive to connect is stronger than the drive to comprehend. Groupthink marks a High WATT Biased Processor on the Central Route cutting the Arguments to fit a Conclusion.

Since I’ve begun blogging I’ve noticed this misunderstanding of Groupthink in a few pop press sources, but the WSJ and the NYT seem to have a corner on the market. Today at WSJ, we have Groupthink with an analysis of which smartphone you use. Here Groupthink is applied to people who have the wrong opinion on Health Care Reform. There, a Member of the British Parliament tasks people with the wrong opinion on Global Warming. And, over the NYT we have a fascinating mashup with Groupthink and introversion. Then, here, in this book review of, all things, a climbing disaster on K2.

But, wait.

Sure, Steve, you’ve caught these mistakes through mere happenstance. Maybe it’s not just WSJ or the NYT. Have you searched more systematically?

Oh. Wow.

Apparently someone could start a blog called No That’s Not Groupthink and post daily. Try for yourself. Hit this link to see today’s collection through the Google News aggregator.

On Sunday, April 1, 2012 as I’m writing this, I see a listing for Chris Weigant in a piece at the Huffington Post on March 30, 2012. He believes that Groupthink is a synonym for that well known effect, the Herd Mentality. And, in a March 30, 2012 Financial Times piece Christopher Caldwell worries about the faddish interest in crowds and groups under the title, Groupthink Is No Match for Solo Genius.

Now, let’s give credit where credit is due. Sometimes pop press writers get Groupthink right. For example, on March 31, 2012 Paul Krugman’s liberal conscience echoes the Groupthink cry from Laurence Ball February 28, 2012 essay on the Federal Reserve’s action. Ball provides a cogent and coherent recounting of Groupthink and actually quotes a good definition of it. Good grief, a Nobel prize winning economist and another one who must be pretty smart, too, since Krugman reads him! Is that what it takes to understand Groupthink?

I could continue in that professorial style of exhausting both the content and the reader with detail upon detail in the name of scholarship, but you get the point. Smart people writing in smart outlets have no idea what they are talking about. Each instance is a small example of FauxItAllery and sure you’ve got to give people some room to expand a thought that might not be according to Hoyle. But, within that see the Bad Science in an attempt at Persuasion.

In all these negative instances, the writers misunderstand and misapply a well defined and well studied persuasion effect as a means of advancing their Persuasion. They reduce this useful concept to little more than a belittling insult thrown during a partisan rock fight.

Groupthink is what strangles your voice when a contrary thought pops in your head during a meeting. The discussion is gathering steam toward a conclusion that you find flawed, but in the interests of solidarity you don’t rock the boat that may soon flounder on the rocky reef only you can see ahead. When individuals allow their sense of cohesion to triumph over thoughtful expression, Groupthink rises. Many people in the group may see disasters ahead, but each suppresses that expression without pressure from another group member. We patrol our minds with the mind we think everyone else has.

And you want to call this the Herd Mentality?

You see the foolishness of these Cool Tablists. They think it more intelligent to drain the meaning and value of Groupthink down to a slur. They also demonstrate a baffling inability to read. Just check the Wikipedia basic entry on Groupthink. This requires a Nobel prize to comprehend? Shootfire, I’m not asking that anyone read any original peer review research, just the pop press like either of Irving Janis’ books on the topic. Or that simple Wiki entry.

I often lament or satirize the woeful reputation of persuasion science. People just don’t understand how wonderful we are. And, it’s worse than that. People don’t understand at all.

Past my stifled cries, gnashed teeth, and rent garments, see the persuasion opportunities. All those Cool Table elites at highly self- and other-esteemed sources like the Times or the Journal or the Post are complete persuasion fools. Talk about easy, ripe, and luscious. I still think it a dangerous game for scientists to play science with these Other Guys, but if you can play without Sincerity, you can shoot those fish in the barrel to advance your career or agenda. Past scientists, if you are trying to make a living off of science, you can be sure that the Cool Table will believe anything you say.

Just tell them your critics are Groupthinkers.

P.S. Laurence Ball makes a pretty good case that at least in the end stages of the Fed under Alan Greenspan, Groupthink processes were probably operating, but his analysis of Groupthink with Ben Bernanke’s Fed fails for me. Ball notes that Bernanke is perceived as an interior, shy, and introverted person who won’t rock the boat. Ball then suggests Fed committees should include aggressive, outspoken people as the cure. There’s no evidence that such personality traits function in Groupthink as Ball describes. Indeed, bombastic group members could easily stifle rational and open discussion as others remain silent as a means of avoiding bombast. And, if you read the case studies from Irving Janis’s work, you find constant examples of Groupthink that included outsized personalities in the room. Whatever the failings of Ben Bernanke and the current Fed, from Ball’s evidence, I don’t think Groupthink or introversion is an issue.

P.P.S. See also in both Krugman and Ball the classic Actor-Observer Attribution effects. Krugman and Ball sit outside the room Observing the Actor, Ben Bernanke. They attribute Bernanke’s actions to his disposition – he’s shy. Bernanke probably attributes his behavior to situational factors – facts on the ground, political reality from Congress, etc. And, if you put Krugman or Ball in the room, their attributions would shift accordingly. Like the old cliche goes, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Undercover Cues

“They were getting close enough to a sitting U.S. Cabinet member that we thought we could no longer allow this to continue,” Figliuzzi says.

This regarding the Russian spy ring broken up in 2010. The ring included Anna Chapman. You remember her.

Yeah, the attractive one nearly got to a Cabinet member and potentially compromised . . . something. The great thing about this story is not what it says, but what it doesn’t say. Who was the Cabinet member? What state secrets were at risk? This statement from Figliuzzi is a masterpiece of persuasion. It says a lot without saying anything.

Gee whiz. The oldest Cue in the Book.

Falling Counts at the IPCC

Sure, if you can’t Count It, you can’t Change It, but not all Counts are Changes. Like this.

The International Weatherpeople at IPCC have issued another report (594 pages!) on the proven perils headed our way shortly. And, they are Counting on their website landing page from late March, 2012 (click to enlarge).

Note again the brave and futile persistence with Counts of Consensus with all those Authors, Countries, and Comments. And, consider, this Count that does Count an important Change.

Gee, only 359 news sources are carrying this New New Thing. This is a huge report, not some diddly memo. But, maybe 359 news sources on the Google News Aggregator is a big deal? Let’s compare . . . like this one from the same moment with corporate PR about Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and his search for the missing engine from Apollo 11.

Goodness, consider the Cascade implications here. The IPCC cannot beat the PR machine for a corporate tycoon looking for space junk at the bottom of the ocean for Reception/Exposure.

If you work this TACT, you might consider trying persuasion for a change.

Persuasion Lambs for Groupon Slaughter

Groupon continues to sell sand to Sauds, ice to Aleuts, and persuasion to mavens. While promising better persuasion for persuaders, Groupon mavens have instead been slaughtering the butchers themselves. First, they used the Scarcity persuasion play to hype their IPO. That made a lot of money. But note.

In other words, after sending out millions of emails to tens of millions of customers and signing up thousands of businesses to offer its deals, all the value that Groupon has created for those who bought its common shares in the public stock market was by selling them those shares.

Groupon persuaded persuaders that persuaders could make money through Groupon, but all the money made was for Groupon only. While it claims to do business on Other Guys that investors can profit on, it turns out that Groupon is profiting on the investors. Legally.

The company consistently has used most of the proceeds of these sales, which began in loosely regulated private markets reserved for wealthy investors, to cash out early investors, rather than use the money for the general operation of the business . . . What Groupon has been more than anything is an incorporated entity that has allowed early investors and executives to extract hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth out, primarily from the proceeds of share sales to later-stage investors.

Joe Kennedy laughs! You can sell persuasion to persuaders.

Psst. The Facebook IPO is coming soon. Don’t tell anyone. This is your chance to get in on the ground floor. Limited number of shares available. No more trading on the secondary market. This is it, baby.

Pause Phonation Ratios in the Supreme Court

One of the most interesting nonverbal elements of speech is the various ratios you can form of the amount of non-persuasive speech (pauses, dysfluencies, etc.) to actual persuasive speech (fluent spoken statements). When people talk, their speech includes not only the fluent production of sound that has persuasive content, but also contains extra sounds that include errors, fillers, restarts, and on and on with the list of spoken mulligans we emit when we speak. The ratio holds two implications, one for the Other Guys and the second for the speaker.

When speakers are smooth, fluent, and continuous in their speech, Other Guys find them more credible, trustworthy, and likeable. When speech includes disruptions, dysfluencies, and breaks, Other Guys find them less credible, trustworthy, and likeable. If you still watch TV news broadcasts you see why folks like Scott Pelley or Brian Williams get millions of dollars essentially to pose in front of the camera and talk fluently. Just listen to their speech. When they speak the sounds are meaningful, intended, persuasive. When they Pause the silence between meaningful sounds is just silence, and sometimes maybe even persuasive as with a Dramatic Pause. Contrast that with the broken, shaken, and stirred speech of a dysfluent speaker and the credibility difference is obvious. Other Guys sense these ratios and make persuasion judgments.

Now, research also demonstrates a second effect from these ratios. Dysfluency also marks real problems in the speaker’s cognition and affect. When people are confused and upset, it shows up in those pause and phonation ratios. If I want to destroy your speech fluency then I make you talk when you are baffled or anxious. Your speech will betray your mind and your heart.

Thus, these two effects are the opposite sides of the same coin. Our speech betrays our bewilderment and Other Guys sense that and do not trust or believe us.

Now, consider these two examples from, of all places, the Supreme Court and the case of Health Care Reform.

On Tuesday, the persuasion source in charge of defending the legislation, the Solicitor General, was the first speaker. He had two years to prepare for this moment and his opening remarks were scripted. Just listen to the first two minutes of the audio.

Now, compare that to a different lawyer, one arguing against the legislation who spoke first on Wednesday. He, too, had months, if not years, to prepare for this moment when he spoke first.

The contrast between these two speakers is obvious. The Solicitor General, speaking to defend the reforming legislation, struggles in his opening prepared remarks with awkward pauses, restarts, and misstatements. He formally apologizes with an, “Excuse me,” and takes a drink of water. All this during his prepared remarks. Then compare to the second day speaker, an attorney delivering his prepared remarks against the legislation. He sounds like a newscaster. Smooth, fluent, coherent without sounding wooden, over-rehearsed, or mechanical.

While it would be easy to exaggerate this, I think the pause phonation ratios in these speeches are proxies or markers or indicators of larger persuasion processes and outcomes. They are scientific metaphors. Sure, you can count to the decimal place various ratios for the Solicitor General and the other attorneys – that’s the science – but they are still only metaphors for the larger persuasion processes and outcomes from this event.

Metaphorically, then, these ratios point to persuasion failure in the presentation for the legislation and persuasion success in the presentation against the legislation. Whether this has any impact on any Other Guys, most especially the Court judges is an open question. The Justices have had this case for many weeks and have been reading and thinking about it extensively well before the oral arguments.

Actually, the more interesting implication here is to wonder whether the dysfluencies say more about the Science behind the opposing arguments. Some folks have maintained that the legislation passed under emotional and dramatic conditions (the victory of Republican Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat lost the legislative majority for the Democrats). In that haste, the law was flawed upon passage. The Science of this case would then say the law is not a Falling Apple. Thus, the reason the Solicitor General delivered such broken and dysfluent speech, even prepared, is because the idea he defended was broken and dysfluent from its hurried and rushed passage.

Once Again Groupthink Is Not an Insult

One writer observes other writers whose work he finds wanting. In understanding their failure he considers a variety of explanations and eventually hits upon Groupthink.

Or maybe groupthink. If Lithwick were lunching with Greenhouse, there would be no controversy at the table over the constitutionality of ObamaCare. The same would be true if they made it a double date with Larry Tribe and Akhil Amar (assuming the two men’s views haven’t changed since February 2011).

Yes, the controversy concerns the pending Supreme Court review of the Health Care Reform legislation, and you can chase the article to relish all the jot and tittle of disagreement, grievance, and outrage, but for our purposes, please consider the usage of Groupthink.

This writer, like many before him, misuses the meaning of the term for an insult to others as if they are in the throes of this well known irrational psychological effect which explains why they are crazy. Simply because different people share the same opinion on a topic does not mean that Groupthink is operating.

Groupthink applies to a relatively small and active group of people with regular communication typically oriented toward specific work goals the group shares. As a result of a strong need for social cohesion individual members may engage in dysfunctional problem solving that causes them to make truly dumb decisions without realizing how that need for cohesion has impaired their rationality.

The problem is not that everyone thinks Health Care Reform is Great or Awful but rather that everyone thinks group cohesion is crucial. That unspoken need for cohesion then motivates people to avoid lines of thinking that could disturb perceived group solidarity. And, no, Groupthink is not what junior players engage on teams with senior players; there, fear and uncertainty about position, politeness, or pride drives avoidance, but again, not Groupthink. As near as I can tell from the context, it appears those writers with the wrong opinion share Similarity, sweetly captured in “birds of a feather, flock together” saying.

If you want to stretch labels and meanings to fit your own universe, you are entitled, especially in the pop press. But, if you keep your concepts clear and clean, persuasion makes a lot more sense. Most groups are groups because of Similarity, but it is Groupthink and not Similarity that may cause them to hit the rocks everyone saw coming but didn’t avoid because they didn’t want to rock the boat.

Falling Apples in Coal Mines from NIOSH

You may recall the explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. Twenty nine men were killed in the disaster on April 5, 2010. Most of the public attack for the event aimed at the coal operators and their negligence. My former lead agency, NIOSH, weighs in with an independent investigation (pdf) and finds that another government agency, the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), could have prevented the event if it had merely followed its own procedures (click to enlarge).

With this explicit and well reasoned evaluation of a health and safety disaster, NIOSH again demonstrates a level of independence and competence people don’t normally associate with the Federal Government. This NIOSH panel specifically identifies a partner agency, the Mining Safety and Health Administration, and their incompetence. NIOSH does not absolve the mine operators for their failures, but clearly shows how properly functioning government inspection also failed here.

It’s commonplace to observe that events with many fatalities have many causes, but it’s not until you actually investigate them that you see the truth of this. When I moved from the university to NIOSH in 1998 I quickly understood that the Usual Gang of Suspects lined up in the pop press and in the court of public opinion were usually the wrong suspects.

This report will not get much attention in the pop press because they’ve already determined what caused the accident. But, if you work in a mine, you want to read this report because this one could actually save your life. Like so many disasters of this magnitude, many people failed to do their jobs properly and over a long period of time.

No one ever believes that it could happen here until it happens here. Such precautionary thinking is just antithetical to human nature. No one thinks they are capable of missing such large, obvious warnings, yet we do it all the time.

P.S. I appreciate the honesty of the NIOSH report, but you can read the persuasion tea leaves from the Secretary of Labor who released the report . . . late on a Friday afternoon. Great timing of the news cycle. The Google news aggregator notes about 150 news sources for this story which addresses one of the largest workplace fatalities in the last 10 years.

You’d think with a labor-friendly Democratic administration in power, this report would generate a lot more attention, interest, and action, but like they say, success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.

P.P.S. You may recall the NIOSH evaluation of an NYC Health Department study of 9-11 first responders and their long term health problems. NIOSH called the NYC analysis inadequate and inaccurate. In public. Gee. Maybe that kind of attitude is why they hired me back in the day.

How Do You Persuade Other Guys to Solicit Strippers?

You’d think that strippers would persuade for themselves, but you’d be wrong.  It’s a tough economy, baby, and even Marcus Lycus and other businesses selling beautiful naked women need to compete.  So, folks like Bentley’s Lingerie Lounge in Greensboro, NC, partnered with Move Tonight, Inc. to promote the TACT of more Other Guys in the club on a Wednesday night.  Here’s Move Tonight’s persuasion play.

Move Tonight thought it persuasive to capitalize on the frenzy over the shooting of Trayvon Martin as an inspiration to visit a strip club during the middle of the week.  Somehow Bentley’s Lingerie Lounge and a bunch of Other Guys found the idea unpersuasive.  The event was cancelled and Move Tonight felt compelled to deliver that worst response in the face of attention:  Explain themselves.

“In lieu of the negative publicity surrounding an event that was being held in memory of Trayvon Martin at Bentley’s, we would like to extend our deepest sympathies and apologies to those offended,” the statement read. “Although we neglected to detail this on the flyer that was circulating promoting the function, all proceeds collected at the door were going to be donated to the NAACP’s Scholarship Fund.”

The death of a young man, the NAACP Scholarship Fund, and strippers on a Wednesday night.  What could go wrong?  What it lacks in sincerity it also lacks in . . . everything else.