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:
- Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part I
- While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control,
or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Understanding the risks of these tactics can motivate
you to find another way.
- Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual
- Careful observation of workplace politics reveals an assortment of devious tactics that the ruthless
use to gain advantage. Here are some of their techniques, with suggestions for effective responses.
- Deceptive Communications at Work
- Most workplace communication training emphasizes constructive uses of communication. But when we also
understand how communication can be abused, we're better able to defend ourselves from abusive communication.
One form of abusive communication is deception.
- Some Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: II
- Skip-level interviews are dialogs between a subordinate and the subordinate's supervisor's supervisor.
They can be both heplful and hazardous. Here's Part II of a little catalog of the hazards.
- Cultural Indicators of Political Risk
- Because of fire risk, hiking in dry forests during dry seasons can be dangerous. In the forest, we stay
safe from fire if we attend to the indicators of fire risk. In the workplace, do you know the indicators
of political risk?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 18: High Falutin' Goofy Talk: III
- Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call high falutin' goofy talk. We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid. Available here and by RSS on July 18.
- And on July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
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As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important
lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product
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- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July
Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati
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