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…



I Think Therefore I am a Consultant: Not!

I worked 15 years for a strategy consultancy, then 4 years for a change management firm.  They were wildly different.  The first celebrated raw brain power.  The second focused on emotional alignment.  (This explains my schizophrenia).

I then went off on my own to do trust work.

A few years later, I collaborated with an ex-strategy colleague, an excellent consultant.  Call him Ishmael.  He was in Boston, me in New Jersey; we met in Stamford to spend the day working together.

He began, “Let’s first spend a few hours discussing what it is the client wants.”  A classic strategy question.  I settled in to the old easy chair.

Then it hit me.  “No, Ishmael,” I said, “let’s just call the client and ask them what they want.” 

Ishmael was not impressed, but that was OK.  I knew I’d just discovered something.  

David Maister  has a medical metaphor to describe professional services firms.  There are Nurses, Pharmacists, Family Doctors, and Brain Surgeons.

Many firms aspire to be Brain Surgeons.  The market says the true number is far smaller.  Brain surgeons, as Maister points out, are known for two things.  One is great technical mastery; the other is a low degree of client interaction.

There are great examples of the “brain surgeon” model. Think of the leading strategy firms, used-to-be investment banks, think tanks, many top law firms. They are high-margin businesses, pay high salaries, and cultivate a mystique of envy and status. 

And—I would argue—they are grossly under-achieving.

Why?  Because of the cult of intellect.  We revere IQ in this culture; it is more important to cite Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence  than to read it–much less practice it. 

Malcolm Gladwell punctures this cult of intellect in talking about innovation:

Ideas weren’t precious. They were everywhere, which suggested that maybe the extraordinary process that we thought was necessary for invention—genius, obsession, serendipity, epiphany—wasn’t necessary at all.

He describes Nathan Myhrvold’s first Innovation Session, bringing together a half-dozen brilliant people:

"He thought if we came up with a half-dozen good ideas it would be great, and we came up with somewhere between fifty and a hundred. I said to him, ‘But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren’t you expecting a multiplier effect?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.’ Not even Nathan had any idea of what it was going to be like."

The finest law firms and strategic consultancies are great in large part not because of brilliance, but because of brilliance shared.  The pity is, their very ethos denigrates the “share” part of the equation. 

As Maister says, part of the “brain surgeon” model is the image of high-on-a-mountain solo thinkers who occasionally interact—and only with each other—to create brilliance.

How much enormous value is left on the table because of the celebration of an heroic myth of solo cogitation, rather than of direct intellectual, collaborative contact with the client?  Two bright people working collaboratively can usually out-think one very bright person.  Make it four people, and there’s no contest. 

The answer is to focus not on getting better and better at solo cognitive manipulation, but also on sharing that brilliance in a way that is ego-less, collaborative, and enthusiastic.  Brilliant 1 plus brilliant 1 makes not 2, but 5.  As Myrvohld said, it’s way beyond multiplicity. 

The absent-minded professor, the eccentric genius are respected, even revered.  But this just lets them off the hook.  By idolizing such anti-social behavior, we are rewarding mediocrity relative to what they are capable of accomplishing.