Influencing others using any means other than reasoning from the merits of the issue at hand can lead organizations away from their own objectives. That's why knowing how to recognize how people use cognitive biases to influence others is a valuable skill. When we notice such attempts, we're better able to limit the effects of manipulation. With this in mind, let's explore a technique of influence that derives its power from cognitive biases. That technique is the use of novel, sophisticated, or subtle argument.
I'll use the name Aristotle for the Advocate, and Carneades for the Skeptic. Aristotle is trying to persuade Carneades of something; Carneades is dubious. Let's say that Aristotle's argument is difficult to grasp, sophisticated, and wrapped in subtlety, but it's solid nevertheless. As Carneades listens and engages, he has a learning experience. He finds himself in the student role under Aristotle's tutelage. When he finally understands Aristotle's point, he has a sense of intellectual achievement: "Ah! I get it."
Several cognitive biases can help Aristotle as he persuades Carneades. Let's consider three.
- Confirmation Bias
- Confirmation Bias is our tendency to emphasize and remember information that confirms our preconceptions. Carneades, like most of us would, has a preconception — he believes that he is highly capable intellectually. After he finally understands what Aristotle is saying, he has an incentive to accept the argument, to be persuaded. His success in understanding Aristotle's difficult-to-grasp argument confirms Carneades in his belief in his own intellectual prowess.
- The Focusing Illusion
- The Focusing Illusion is Some attempts to influence others
succeed not on the basis of
the merits of the argument, but
because they manipulate peoplethe tendency to overvalue one aspect of a situation relative to its importance. Thus, if Carneades invests significant effort in grasping Aristotle's argument, and if he succeeds, he will have an incentive to place more emphasis on that evidence than might otherwise be appropriate. In effect, he tends to want to justify the effort invested in grasping Aristotle's claims, by overvaluing their importance. The difficulty of grasping the novel or subtle argument can thus enhance the Focusing Illusion.
- The Halo Effect
- The Halo Effect, generalized a bit, is the tendency for our assessment of one attribute of a person, situation, or thing, to influence our assessment of the item's other attributes. Thus, an unusually attractive person is often judged as unusually trustworthy; an unusually well designed Web site is assessed as unusually credible. With regard to the novel argument Aristotle presents, his role as "tutor" tends to cause Carneades to admire Aristotle's intellectual powers. This leads Carneades to evaluate Aristotle's argument as more plausible than the argument itself might otherwise justify, because the "halo" of Aristotle's sophisticated argument bestows credibility on Aristotle, which, in turn, makes the argument more credible.
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More articles on Devious Political Tactics:
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- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
- Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict.
These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series
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- Investigations at work can begin with implicit interrogations — implicit because they're unannounced and unacknowledged. The goal is to determine what people did or knew without revealing that an investigation is underway. When asked, those conducting these interrogations often deny they're doing it. What's the nature of implicit interrogations? Available here and by RSS on November 27.
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- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.