One powerful tool of persuasion is the anecdote. Anecdotes are stories about specific incidents, or descriptions of specific situations. We use anecdotes to persuade because they represent a more general class of incidents or situations. For example, we might say, "One customer tried to follow those installation instructions, and it destroyed all her data files." That's an anecdote that suggests problems with the installation procedure.
Anecdotes derive their power from their repeatability and their passion.
- Anecdotes confer leverage upon their tellers because those who hear the anecdotes can easily repeat the anecdotes to others. This enables the teller of the anecdote to persuade people who aren't actually present for the telling. Anecdotes can thus go viral without computers or networks. And the people persuaded by anecdotes can clearly explain why they were persuaded, because anecdotes are memorable.
- Some anecdotes are compelling because they convey emotion or passion. They can elicit empathy from those who hear them, as does the anecdote about the lost data files from anyone who has ever lost data. Telling a compelling anecdote can persuade powerfully.
Although anecdotes are powerful, they can also be hazardous to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. As we listen to anecdotes we're subject to a variety of so-called cognitive biases. The biases can distort our thinking as we interpret and evaluate the persuader's message. Listeners can find themselves adopting views that aren't in their interests. Similarly, if listeners make interpretations not intended by anecdote tellers, they might adopt views that aren't consistent with the teller's intentions.
Here is Part I of a catalog of cognitive biases that create these hazards.
- Availability Heuristic
- We tend to estimate the probability of events based on how easy it is to imagine those events occurring, Although anecdotes are powerful
tools of persuasion, they can also
be hazardous to both anecdote
tellers and anecdote listenersrather than on serious estimates of likelihoods. Likewise, we gauge the plausibility of an assertion based on how easy it is to imagine the conditions that would make it valid. Anecdotes illustrating assertions can thus lead listeners to feel that the assertions are more likely to be true than they actually are. That's one way in which the Availability Heuristic makes false rumors — which are often in the form of anecdotes — credible.
- Focusing Illusion
- The Focusing Illusion is our tendency to overvalue one aspect of a situation relative to its importance. For example, in the anecdote about the lost data files, the listener focuses on the fact that the loss occurred at the time of installing the new software. The anecdote says nothing about what else might have been happening at the time. Did another user have access to the files on the server? Did someone or something else delete the files? The anecdote's form actually suppresses any thought of possible causes other than the installation.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.