Arguing Rationally to the Irrational

More and more research—from behavioral economists and psychologists—is pointing out ways in which our Renaissance-era views of human cognition are a bit off base.  It is one thing to say cogito ergo sum.  It is quite another to claim we cogit very well.

Perhaps the best-known of the new works is Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely.   Others include Sway and Nudge, and maybe Blink and Squawk.  And definitely Yes.  (See a pattern in these titles?).

However, the opening story in Ariely’s Predictably Irrational raises an interesting question.  To whom are these books addressed?

Does Convincing People Change Their Actions?

He tells a fascinating story of having suffered from third-degree burns, wondering why the nurses insisted on the all-at-once one method of bandage removal, rather than slow removal of the bandage.

The nurses insisted the all at once theory was the best for the patient.  Ariely concluded, based on research done afterward, that the nurses’ attraction to that theory was in fact based on their own need to curtail the empathetic pain that they felt for the patient.  If the patient’s pain were all that mattered, some version of slow removal turned out to be far better.

So far so good.  Ariely tells the story as an example of how irrational thinking often—and predictably–dominates rational decision-making.  Indeed, as he says, when he talked to the nurses about it:

“In the end, we all agreed that the procedures should be changed.”

Good. Clear thought (cognitive rational therapy?) triumphs, thanks to Ariely’s insightful analysis.  Right?  Well, not so fast.

“My recommendations never changed the bandage removal on a greater scale…”

This is ironic: but it should not be a surprise.  If you’re trying to convince people of the weakness of rational argument, then rational arguments are not likely to do the job.  In a similar vein:

•    You often can’t solve a problem by working at the same level at which it was caused.
•    Most people, if told what to do, are generally inclined not to do it.  (Underscore that for strangers, teenagers, relatives over the age of 14, and men—I think).
•    In the US, the self-help book market is $2 Billion.  That’s about $600 of self-help per person per year.  Clearly either the advice is bad or people don’t take it.  (Hint: put your money on the latter).

Corporate Implications of Non-rational Thinking

This raises interesting questions for the daily conduct of major parts of corporate business.

  • Why do salespeople spin lengthy arguments about value propositions?
  • Why do consultants use powerpoint for numbers and words alone?
  • Why do buyers spend time rationally justifying decisions?
  • Why do change initiatives spend so much effort developing convincing arguments?

So what’s a corporate change agent to do?  Let me offer a few very broad, inconclusive observations:

1. The likelihood of other people accepting suggestions is greatly improved if:

  •     They are presented in the form of a story
  •     They are presented at a time of crisis for which the suggestions offer a solution
  •     The recipients of the suggestions conceive of them as their own

2. People make decisions with their gut, and rationalize them with their brains.  The rationalization process is important: it dictates procedures, and positions logic as a kind of least-common-denominator quality requirement.  It also serves as an emotionally neutral (albeit manipulable) arbiter, which relieves us all of the emotional/political pressure of deciding based solely on argumentation.

3. We need to take these books seriously.  One b-school industrial economist who focuses on culture change told me, “Frankly, we know perfectly well how to manage organizational change.  It’s called propaganda, or the Big Lie.  Just keep saying the One Big Thing, over and over, and people will fall into line.”  You may not like his observation, but it makes a lot of sense, and there’s data to prove it.

Not that that proves anything…



2 replies
  1. David Heath
    David Heath says:

    Thoughtly words indeed, Charles.

    This makes it abundantly clear why the endless stream of rational ‘anti-smoking’ adverts have had little or no impact on the smokers of the world.

    I wonder, though if ’emotive’ advertisements (perhaps something like "smokers stink" or "smoking isn’t cool, it never was") would do the trick.

    Perhaps not.


  2. Amanda Bucklow
    Amanda Bucklow says:

    I really enjoyed this analysis, Charles. It gave me some great insights about why people might trust mediators and what they might trust them for. Very timely as it happens as I have been drafting a piece for a journal on just that topic.

    I agree whole-heartedly with the three points on why people might accept suggestions. Spot on! Timing and "packaging" are everything.


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