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Deliberately Creating a Threat in Order to Effect Change

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I've explained elsewhere how your audience can look at your presentation completely differently from you, and how they can feel threatened by it in ways you hadn't considered (if you haven't read them, see Identifying Perceived Threats To The Audience and Getting Past The Audience's Lizard Brain before continuing).

One way to deal with this is to deliberately distract their Lizard Brains with an even bigger threat. In 7 Great Ways To Structure A Presentation I explained how when you want to persuade people of something, the best way to do it ...... the Big Beast, the 1000lb Gorilla, the Killer application ..... is Problem/Threat and Solution.

This structure essentially creates and builds a threat or problem which will be solved by your proposal. Effectively, the presentation creates a situation where there is a huge cartoon thought bubble coming from each of your audience’s heads with the words, ‘Wow! You're right; that’s a real threat we face right now/are going to face.’ Then it’s as easy as falling off a log to say, 'Let me tell you how we can avoid/solve that ......’ and present your solution.

If you’re an upbeat, positive kind of person, your natural desire may be to talk about the positive, upbeat side of your proposal.  But remember the Lizard Brain’s survival filter is arguably the most powerful part of the brain. The desire to avoid a threat is far stronger than the desire to obtain pleasure. Pain outweighs gain 90% of the time.

As Arthur Schoppenhauer said:

“Pleasure is never as pleasant as we expected it to be and pain is always more painful. The pain in the world always outweighs the pleasure. If you don't believe it, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is eating the other.”

Consider the following experiment where a large number of doctors were asked to choose between two different options in a hypothetical scenario where an unusual disease hits a town and is expected to kill 600 people.

  • Option A: 200 people will be saved.
  • Option B: a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved and a 2/3 probability that no-one will be saved.

Now these were physicians. Their self-image was of someone who was in that profession to do good, to help, to save people. Choosing an option which might lead to everybody dying clashed with their self-image. It was a threat. They just couldn’t do it. So 72% of them chose option A, the safe strategy. They would rather save a guaranteed number of people than risk everybody dying.

A second group of physicians was then asked to choose between two further options.

  • Option C, 400 people will die.
  • Option D there is a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 will die.

When given the choice between these two, the physicians reversed their original choice.

78% now chose option D, with only 22% choosing option C.

But in case you haven't noticed it (and most of the physicians didn't, so you're in good company), the two scenarios are exactly the same; saving one-third of the population is the same as losing two-thirds!

When the outcomes were stated in terms of deaths rather than lives saved, they were suddenly keen to gamble. They were so keen to avoid the threat/problem that they were prepared to risk everything.

If you want another example, people were stopped on the street and given the opportunity to play a game. They were given $50 and then given two options:

  • Option A: a 40% chance of keeping the $50 but a 60% chance of losing it all.
  • Option B: they were guaranteed to walk away with $20.

58% of people took Option B, the sure thing. They rejected the 40% chance of losing it all. Others were offered a choice between Option A (as above), or Option C: they were guaranteed to lose $30.

Option C is obviously the same as Option B (if you start off with $50, keeping $20 is exactly the same as losing $30). But now, only 38% of people selected it. When it was phrased as a loss instead of a gain, their Lizard Brains’ survival filters automatically rejected the ‘threat.’

So . . . the default setting for the Lizard Brain is to be on the lookout for a threat to reject. It's almost determined to find one somewhere. After all, that's almost its raison d'etre. To exaggerate slightly, it doesn't feel it's done its job properly until it's found one.

So if you don't want it to identify your presentation as the threat, you've got to distract it with something else, i.e. by creating an even bigger, more obvious one. The audience's Lizard Brains will be on the lookout for a threat, so make it easy for them; create a decoy for them.

This effectively tricks the Lizard Brain, and your presentation/proposal will now be seen as the solution rather than the problem.

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