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December 2017 Business SCAN

How often have you presented an argument – backed up facts, figures and robust research – but have failed to convince people? The evidence should speak for itself, right? The simple answer is that facts and rational arguments aren’t very good at altering people’s beliefs. Humans’ are just too prone to adopt short cuts in their decision-making process to be persuaded by mere fact. This month’s Hot Topic looks into dealing with fake-facts and the art of arguing for the evidence.

Change People’s Minds without the Facts

Social proof is an effective persuasion technique

If our social group believes something, we are more likely to follow the herd.

One of the reasons we are so keen to believe in, for example, conspiracy theories and fallacies is that, as social animals, our status in society is much more important than being right – that is from an evolutionary standpoint. Consequently, we constantly compare our actions and beliefs to those of our peers and then alter them to fit in.

According to Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication and Chemistry at the University of Hull, the principle applies just as powerfully to ideas. If more people believe a piece of information, then we are more likely to accept it as true. This means that when we are overly exposed to a particular idea, via our social group, the idea becomes embedded in our world view. In short, social proof is a much more effective persuasion technique than purely evidence-based proof, which is why this sort of proof is so popular in advertising.

When we make a decision to, for example, buy a stock or sell it short, or to eat a doughnut instead of an apple, why do we make that decision? A fascinating takeaway from a study about how our brain works, is that people and animals tend to make very similar kinds of decisions when they are in similar contexts. In fact, much of our behaviour and the choices we make, even in a very complex situation, are driven by forces that evolved a long time ago to solve the kinds of problems that animals need to solve, such as finding food, finding a mate or making friends and allies that will help to solve the problems.

These findings have some similarity to the most fundamental needs of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In business and management, this model is seen as a vehicle for understanding motivation; in sociology, psychology and educational research, it is a means of interpreting the needs of individuals.

A confluence of factors is involved in what we choose to believe and not believe — from the primitive parts of the brain that respond to the most basic of needs, to the push and pull of external forces and opinions. 

Lorch, M. (2017) Why people believe in conspiracy theories – and how to change their minds, The Conversation, Aug 18; Grant, A. (2017) How Vulnerability Can Help You Connect with an Audience (opinion piece), [email protected], Oct 20; Wortmann C., Buck M. L., Franconeri, S., Petersen, M. A. and Howard, L. L. (2017) Take 5: How to Tell a Great Story, Kellogg Insight, Oct 3.

Action Point

Think back to the last time you heard a debate on the radio or television. How convincing did you find the argument that ran counter to your view? How did this compare to what you agreed with? Consider what techniques you could use to present your counter argument to a conflicting point of view.

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Techniques Referenced in this Hot Topic

Hierarchy of Needs | Cognitive Bias | Emotional Intelligence

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Change People’s Minds without the Facts
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