How to persuade people without changing their minds

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IT IS ALL IN THE FRAMING

You may not have heard of framing, but it shapes what you believe and how you act every day in every way.

Marketing gurus will tell you that the ‘new’ marketing is about storytelling. In fact, the old marketing is about storytelling.

Except, that it isn’t about ‘stories’ it is about ‘narrative frame’. This is how a paper from University of Southern California describes it:

A listener's psychological reaction to narrated events is influenced by how the narrator frames the events, appealing to different values, knowledge, and experiences of the listener.

If that sounds awfully academic, allow me to reframe it (simply):

People base their decisions today on their past experiences.

HOW FRAMES ARE CONSTRUCTED

People (over time) process their experiences in a way that forms the basis of what they believe to be true (knowledge) and what they believe to important (values). In this way experiences build on each other to create a mindset or worldview that has utilitarian value for the individual; he or she can use it to function properly in the real world.

New experiences are viewed through the lens of your existing worldview, and the ‘facts’ that fit best with the existing mindset are easily absorbed because they are deemed true. The trap we all fall into is that, new experiences that don’t fit with the existing mental models, are bent so that they are forced to fit.

We all do this bending of reality to fit our mental models, because we don’t have the mental capacity to objectively, systematically evaluate every experience, and to file it properly. The process is too slow for the real world, and it is psychologically uncomfortable and destabilizing.

This process is related to the idea of ‘bias’ but not necessarily the way it is often explained. A bias is not some ‘bad’ thing that you should strive to eliminate. (Here is a long list of cognitive biases.)

One such bias that people universally claim to be ‘bad’ and that should be avoided is (for example) stereotyping, which is expecting a member of a group to have certain characteristics without having actual information about that individual.

Whilst there is some benefit to gain from expecting the unexpected, and to give people the ‘benefit of the doubt’; most often people conform to stereotype. That is stereotypes have functional utility because they are usually true. By not having to wait for, or in the absence of any other facts, it is practical and expedient to assume people will conform to stereotype. It takes very limited mental processing capacity, which leaves you free to pay attention to other things. Stereotyping is a useful bias. Of course, there may be times with certain individuals where the stereotype does not apply, and it is useful to be able to recognise that. But the point is that, until proven otherwise, the bias has a purpose.

Biases are useful shortcuts (heuristics) that allow people to operate efficiently in the world.

It is very hard to change people’s biases.

This gives rise to another aphorism which has become cliched, but is essentially true. People will often claim ‘perception is reality’. Of course that is not true; reality is reality, irrespective of how it is perceived. But in practice, how people perceive reality leads to them acting in a way that is in accordance with how they perceive it, so it is a fair enough approximation to accept the statement is a useful proxy.

So, we have three considerations here:

One: People construct mental models to operate in the world

Two: Our biases influence how we stack more information on top of existing information, favouring the facts that have proven most useful and repeatable over time

Three: With our personal mental models thus constructed, we perceive the world in a certain way.

FRAMES IN ACTION

The way we perceive the world is through frames - and people have multiple frames which are contingent upon circumstances.

It is not easy to change people’s biases. It is almost impossible to change people’s mental models - their personal paradigm - but it is possible to persuade people by creating a specific narrative frame. Strangely, you are actually not changing people’s minds (that is almost impossible) but since people have multiple frames through which they look at reality, you can change the perceived reality by changing the frame.

Imagine someone is looking through a keyhole into a room. They see a man lying on the bed, and another person taking a knife to his chest and slicing him open. They might think they are witnessing a murder.

Imagine now you put a sign above the door that reads OR 3 with a red cross. They still witness the same (limited) set of behaviours, but now people are more likely to think they are witnessing a medical procedure.

People’s mental models and biases have remained UNCHANGED. There are certain behaviours that are good (life-saving operation) and there certain behaviours that are bad (murder).

It’s not a great analogy because you may tempted to think that the ‘persuasion’ worked because you simply provided more information (the sign above the door). Consider some real life examples:

For decades there was strong push to get abortion legalised. The arguments were framed as pro-abortion and anti-abortion. Looking at the issue through the lens of abortion made it very difficult for pro-abortionists to win an argument. People have certain biases and certain mental models; including that the ‘innocent shouldn’t be made to suffer’.

Over time, and I am not sure if it was by design or by chance, the debate was re-framed as being ‘pro-choice’ and ‘anti-choice’. As soon as this happened, the debate was over. Most people would subscribe to the idea that personal freedoms are important. Consequently the right to choose is important, and they accepted abortion viewed through that lense. People did not change their minds about ‘innocents not suffering’ - but they just looked at the debate as being about choice and not about suffering.

The same happens with the debate about same-sex marriage. Traditionally homosexuality was deemed a deviant behaviour and was ignored or covered up. (Those who refused to do so were said to ‘come out’.)  

As soon as the debate was reframed away from homosexuality (we are different) towards marriage equality (we deserve the same) the momentum towards allowing same sex marriage swung rapidly and decisively towards acceptance. Most people can identify with the importance and the inherent fairness of treating people ‘equally’.

Those opposed to same-sex marriage have attempted unsuccessfully to frame the debate as being about ‘political correctness’. That is because being PC is, whilst generally derided, not seen as a human right issue and therefore carries less weight - or what I like to call ‘persuasive valence’.

So much for the background. How does this apply to business?

THE IMPORTANCE OF A SINGLE WORD

One of the key ‘narratives’ that an organisation can create is through mass-media advertising.

Aldert Vrij’s (Detecting Lies and Deceit) describes the framing effect as follows:

Participants saw a film of a traffic accident and then answered questions about the event, including the question ‘About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?’ Other participants received the same information, except that the verb ‘contacted’ was replaced by either hit, bumped, collided, or smashed. Even though all of the participants saw the same film, the wording of the questions affected their answers. The speed estimates (in miles per hour) were 31, 34, 38, 39, and 41, respectively.

One week later, the participants were asked whether they had seen broken glass at the accident site. Although the correct answer was ‘no,’ 32% of the participants who were given the ‘smashed’ condition said that they had. Hence the wording of the question can influence their memory of the incident.

A bank may choose to frame their home-loan product as being ‘smart’ or as being ‘safe’. Or an institution may choose to frame their life-insurance products as being ‘smart’ or as being ‘responsible’. (Which would you choose as the most effective?)

THE RISK OF FRAMING FOR CHEAP

The interesting thing is how many retailers choose to frame their offer as being ‘the cheapest’ or value for money. These are valid frames, because consumers have a propensity to want to save money and they have a frame of not wanting to be ripped off.

There are multiple problems with this frame:

One: Several brands are offering the same frame, so it is crowded in front of that particular window. Competing on price is an option only if it is well-considered; but often it seems to be a lazy strategy applied inappropriately to the wrong product or market.

Two: The type of customer you acquire is the least valuable and most disloyal. It is a precarious business model that relies fully on price-conscious customer. I am not suggesting that it can’t be done (WalMart e.g.) but there are a number of other things that need to be balanced, one being that it is best suited to products or services that are commoditised, and the entire business model should cater to that type of business.

Three: The brand association is inherently negative, because.heuristic that applies to things that are cheap is that they are poor quality. You can say ‘value for money AND best quality’ as much as you like in your advertisements, it won’t change people’s minds because people have a bias to disbelieve what people say about themselves and believe the actions they take. I can tell you I am an honest guy as much as I like, but until you ascertain for yourself that I act honestly, you will tend to disbelieve it.

CONCLUSION

The best kind of persuasion is the kind that does not rely on people changing their minds. It is nearly impossible to change people’s minds, because they have constructed a mental model of the world that allows them to function properly in reality.

Instead of changing people’s minds, try and change the lense through which they look at the world.

You can do this by changing a word.


Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/maumana/3714637604/