Are people in general dominated by unreason? Are there effective ways to influence changes in behaviour, for good, despite the irrationality and other obstacles to change?
Here’s an example quoted by Eliezer Yudkowsky in his presentation Cognitive Biases and Giant Risks at the Singularity Summit earlier this month. The original research was carried out by behavioural economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1982:
115 professional analysts, employed by industry, universities, or research institutes, were randomly divided into two different experimental groups who were then asked to rate the probability of two different statements, each group seeing only one statement:
- “A complete suspension of diplomatic relations between the USA and the Soviet Union, sometime in 1983.”
- “A Russian invasion of Poland, and a complete suspension of diplomatic relations between the USA and the Soviet Union, sometime in 1983.”
Estimates of probability were low for both statements, but significantly lower for the first group (1%) than the second (4%).
The moral? Adding more detail or extra assumptions can make an event seem more plausible, even though the event necessarily becomes less probable. (The cessation of diplomatic relations could happen for all kinds of reasons, not just in response to the invasion. So the first statement must, in rationality, be more probable than the second.)
Eliezer’s talk continued with further examples of this “Conjunction fallacy” and other examples of persistent fallacies of human reasoning. As summarised by New Atlantis blogger Ari N. Schulman:
People are bad at analyzing what is really a risk, particularly for things that are more long-term or not as immediately frightening, like stomach cancer versus homicide; people think the latter is a much bigger killer than it is.
This is particularly important with the risk of extinction, because it’s subject to all sorts of logical fallacies: the conjunction fallacy; scope insensitivity (it’s hard for us to fathom scale); availability (no one remembers an extinction event); imaginability (it’s hard for us to imagine future technology); and conformity (such as the bystander effect, where people are less likely to render help in a crowd).
Yudkowsky concludes by asking, why are we as a nation spending millions on football when we’re spending so little on all different sorts of existential threats? We are, he concludes, crazy.
It was a pessimistic presentation. It was followed by a panel discussion featuring Eliezer, life extension researcher Aubrey de Grey, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and Singularity Institute president Michael Vassar. One sub-current of the discussion was: given how irrational people tend to be as a whole, how can we get the public to pay attention to the important themes being addressed at this event?
The answers I heard were variants of “try harder”, “find ways to embarass people”, and “find some well-liked popular figure who would become a Singularity champion”. I was unconvinced. (Though the third of these ideas has some merit – as I’ll revisit at the end of this article.)
For a much more constructive approach, I recommend the ideas in the very fine book I’ve just finished reading: Influencer: the power to change anything.
No less than five people are named as co-authors: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. It’s a grand collaborative effort.
For a good idea of the scope of the book, here’s an extract from the related website,
When it comes to influence we stink. Consider these examples:
- Companies spend more than $300 billion annually for training and less than 10 percent of what people are taught sticks.
- Dieters spend $40 billion a year and 19 out of 20 lose nothing but their money.
- Two out of three criminals are rearrested within three years.
If influence is the capacity to help ourselves and others change behavior, then we all want influence, but few know how to get it.
Influencer delivers a powerful new science of influence that draws from the skills of hundreds of successful change agents combined with more than five decades of the best social science research. The book delivers a coherent and portable model for changing behaviors—a model that anyone can learn and apply.
The key to successful influence lies in three powerful principles:
- Identify a handful of high-leverage behaviors that lead to rapid and profound change.
- Use personal and vicarious experience to change thoughts and actions.
- Marshall multiple sources of influence to make change inevitable.
As I worked through chapter after chapter, I kept thinking “Aha…” to myself. The material is backed up by extensive academic research by change specialists such as Albert Bandura and Brian Wansink. There are also numerous references to successful real-life influence programs, such as the eradication of guinea worm diseasee in sub-saharan Africa, controlling AIDS in Thailand, and the work of Mimi Silbert of Delancy Street with “substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom”.
The book starts by noting that we are, in effect, too often resigned to a state of helplessness, as covered by the “acceptance clause” of the so-called “serenity prayer” of Reinhold Niebuhr
- God grant me the serenity
- To accept the things I cannot change;
- Courage to change the things I can;
- And wisdom to know the difference
What we lack, the book says, is the skillset to be able to change more things. It’s not a matter of exhorting people to “try harder”. Nor is a matter that we need to become better in talking to people, to convince them of the need to change. Instead, we need a better framework for how influence can be successful.
Part of the framework is to take the time to learn about the “handful of high-leverage behaviors” that, if changed, would have the biggest impact. This is a matter of focusing – leaving out many possibilities in order to target behaviours with the greatest leverage. Another part of the framework initially seems the opposite: it recommends that we prepare to use a large array of different influence methods (all with the same intended result). These influence methods start by recognising the realities of human reasoning, and works with these realities, rather than seeking to drastically re-write them.
The framework describes six sources of influence, in a 2×3 matrix. One set of three sources addresses motivation, and the other set of three addresses capability. In each case, there are personal, social, and structural approaches (hence the 2×3). The book has a separate chapter for each of these six sources. Each chapter is full of good material.
- For example, the section on personal motivation analyses the idea of “making the undesirable desirable”
- The section on social motivation analyses “the positive power of peer pressure”
- The section on structural motivation recognises the potential power of extrinsic rewards systems, but insists that they come third: you need to have the personal and social motivators in place first
- Personal ability: new behaviour requires new skills, which need regular practice
- Social ability: finding strength in numbers
- Structural ability: change the environment: harness the invisible and pervasive power of environment to support new behaviour.
Rather than bemoaning the fact that making a story more specific messes up people’s abilities to calculate probabilities rationally, the book has several examples of how stories (especially soap operas broadcast in the third world) can have very powerful influence effects, in changing social behaviours for the better. Listeners are able to personally identify with the characters in the stories, with good outcomes.
This curve is famous inside the technology industry. Like many other, I learned of it via the “Crossing the chasm” series of books by Geoffrey Moore (who, incidentally, is one of the keynote speakers on day 2 of the Symbian Exchange and Expo, on Oct 28th). Moore draws the same curve, but with a large gap (“chasm”) in it, where numerous hi-tech companies fail:
However, the analysis of this curve in “Influencer” focused instead on the difference between “Innovators” and “Early adopters”. The innovators may be the first to adopt a new technology – whether it be a new type of seed (as studied by Everett Rogers), a new hi-tech product (as studied by Geoffrey Moore), or an understanding of the importance of the Singularity. However, they are bad references as far as the remainder of the population are concerned. They probably are perceived as dressing strangely, holding strange beliefs and customs, and generally not being “one of us”. If they adopt something, it doesn’t increase the probability of anyone in the majority of the population being impressed. If anything, they’re likely to be un-impressed as a result. It’s only when people who are seen as more representative of the mainstream adopt a product, that this fact becomes influential to the wider population.
As Singularity enthusiasts reflect on how to gain wider influence over public discussion, they would do well to take to heart the lessons of “Influencer: the power to change anything”.
Footnote: recommended further reading:
Two other books I’ve read over the years made a similar impact on me, as regards their insight over influence:
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini
- Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.
Another two good books on how humans are “predictably irrational”:
- Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely
- Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, by Gary Marcus (which I reviewed here).