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'Use the force, Luke!' - Priming the audience to think in a certain way

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In Deliberately creating a threat, I explained that one way of Getting past your audience's Lizard brain's tendency to find threats everywhere it looked is to effectively create a diversion by deliberately creating a threat to which your proposal is a solution. But sometimes it just isn't possible to do this.


The alternative way to try to solve this problem is through something called 'priming'. This is influencing the way a person (or audience) thinks by tapping into the their subconscious thoughts to make them think along certain lines. Now this might sound like it's a Luke Skywalker 'Jedi mind trick,' but it's grounded in serious neuroscientific research.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book 'Blink' quotes a study at NYU (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996) in which 2 groups of students were given a 'scrambled sentence test'.  This involved them rearranging a jumble of 5 words into a grammatical 4 word sentence.  For example, the words might have been, red the is apple about, from which the students would create 'the apple is red'.

But this was just a diversion and a way of suggesting certain words to influence or prime the subject’s subconscious. One group was given words like bold, intrude, bother, rude, infringe, and disturb.  The other was given words like patiently, appreciate, yield, polite, and courteous.  After the test each student was told to walk down the hall to get their next task from someone in another office.  Each time, there was another student (who was part of the test) at the experimenter’s office asking a series of questions forcing the subject to wait.  

The experimenters had expected the difference between the groups to be measured in seconds, but the actual results were startling; those primed to be “rude” interrupted on average after about 5 minutes. 82% of those primed to be “polite” never interrupted at all (the wait period in the study to a maximum of ten minutes), so it's unknown how long they would have waited! The difference between these groups based simply on the nature of the priming was huge! 

In a similar (and oft quoted) experiment, students primed with words about old age (e.g., worried, Florida, lonely, gray, bingo, forgetful) were timed walking to the elevator after their test, and did so considerably more slowly than they did on their way to the testing office. They'd been 'primed' to act in an 'old' way.

There have been many experiments like this, but in a third and final example, one group was asked to write down attributes pertaining to being a college professor for 5 minutes, while a second was tasked with listing the attributes of soccer hooligans.  They were then given 47 questions from the board game Trivial Pursuits.  Those who had been primed to think as a professor got 56% correct while those primed about soccer hooligans got only 43% correct. 

When I first learned about this I couldn't believe it. 'What the @#~* is going on here?' I thought. The best (and simplest) explanation I've found is from Cordelia Fine in her excellent book 'A Mind Of Its Own'. She calls all the thoughts, knowledge and opinions we have about a subject a schema, and writes:

" . . . just about everything we've learned about the world is neatly tidied away somewhere in a schema. I like to think of a schema as a big bed full of slumbering brain cells. All the brain cells in the bed represent a different part of the schema. So for example, in the schema for dogs you'll find brain cells that when active and awake point out that dogs have four legs. Then there are some that hold the information that dogs bark, . . . and others for just about everything else you know about the concept of dogs. And they're all tucked up in the same bed.

Priming a schema is like shaking a few of the brain cells awake. Because they're all snuggled up cosily, waking one group of brain cells disturbs the sleep of all the others in the bed, and makes them more likely to wake up."

So . . . wake up a few brain cells that are to do with being polite, and you also stimulate those that tell you it would be rude to interrupt the student asking the researcher questions (and vice versa if you've stimulated the rudeness schema).

How can we use this when trying to persuade an audience about something?

Well . . .we all have a schema of brain cells about open-mindedness and impartiality. Not just about the concept itself, but also memories of when someone didn't give one of our ideas a chance because they wouldn't listen, or of other occasions when we've been wrong about something. And they're all slumbering away in the same big bed in your audience's brains. What we need to do is wake them up by getting them to think about the very concept of open-mindedness. And we do this by talking about impartiality as our opener . . . but in an interesting and intriguing way.

Now you don't do this by simply saying, "I'm going to say something a bit controversial today, so I want you to take the blinkers off and give me a fair hearing." That's just another way of of alerting the Lizard Brain that you're about to say something it won't like. It's like saying, "Watch out, here comes a threat!!!!!"

We need to get past the Lizard Brain and engage the Neocortex and we do this by being different and interesting, raising the dangers of not being impartial and open-minded before we introduce the fact that they mightn't like what we're about to say.

Here are 2 ways you could do it:

Method 1: The Perceived Wisdom Test

Let’s say you’re proposing something new and different, and you worry you won’t get a fair hearing and some of the audience will immediately respond with “There’s nothing wrong with the way we do it now” or “We’ve already got a way of dealing with that . . .”  You could prime the audience to “willingly question perceived wisdom” by using the following slide and saying:


“I want to start today by asking you a question, which is, 'What is James Bond's favorite drink?' On the screen you'll see four possible answers. It could be a) Martini  b) Champagne c) Sake, or d) Whisky/bourbon. Can I just see, with a show of hands, how many people think it's A? Ok ... B? C? And now .... D?

It seems the overwhelming favorite is D: a martini, presumably 'shaken not stirred.' Well . . .  someone with far too much time on his hands once analyzed all of Ian Fleming's James Bonds books and noted every time he had an alcoholic drink. He had one on average every 7 pages and had 317 in total.

The results will probably surprise you. He drank the infamous martini 19 times, champagne 30 times, sake a surprising 35 times (though all in one book which was set in Japan) but drank a whiskey an amazing 96 times. That's 5 times as many whiskeys as Martinis.

And the reason I tell you this is to make a point. Sometimes everyone thinks they know something. They're sure they have the answer. They're convinced they're right. Everyone agrees . . .  and yet the accepted wisdom is wrong.

In this company we've always been convinced that the best way to deal with ABC is by doing XYZ. There's no debate. Everyone agrees. Today I'm going to suggest a better way of doing it. Now your initial response might be, 'We've already got a way of dealing with that,' or 'There's nothing wrong with using XYZ' And if it is, I'd like you put those thoughts to the back of your mind until you've heard everything I've got to say, because I think you're going to be surprised . . ."

An alternative way of doing the same thing would be:


"I'd like to start today by asking you a question: 'Where do most tigers live?' On the screen you'll see four possible answers. It could be a) China b) Kenya c) USA, or d) India. Can I just see, with a show of hands, how many people think it's A? Ok ...... B? C? And now .... D?

It seems the overwhelming favorite is D: India. Well it might surprise you to know that the correct answer is . . . C: the United States. 100 years ago there were 40,000 of them in India. Now it's estimated there are only between 3 and 5,000.

However, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association estimates that up to 12,000 tigers are kept as private pets in the USA. There are 4,000 in Texas alone - that's about the same as in India - and Mike Tyson personally has four of them, one of which you’ll have seen in the movie ‘The Hangover.’ As an aside, tigers can't abide the smell of alcohol and will attack anyone who's been drinking, so if you're ever invited to Mike Tyson's house, bear that in mind.

The reason I tell you this is to make a serious point. Beliefs .... are often based on out-of-date information. Companies often formulate strategies based on what used to be true rather than what is true.

In this company we've always believed that the best way to deal with ABC is by doing XYZ. And it once was. But today I'm going to suggest a better way of doing it. Now your initial response might be . . ."

2. The Semmelweis Reflex

This is quite lengthy, but just as spending time highlighting and emphasizing a problem or threat saves you a lot of time later on when you come to suggest your solution, so spending time getting them into the right frame of mind can save an enormous amount of time by cutting down on debate later.

Ignaz Semmelweis

“On the screen is a postage stamp denoting a man named Ignaz Semmelweis. Little known outside his native Hungary, he was a physician who worked in the maternity department of the hospital in Vienna in the 1840s. At the time, death rates for women giving birth varied enormously. In some wards they could be 5%, in others as high as 30% and he wanted to know why this was. He had no preconceptions about it, just an open mind. And he examined every possible thing it could be - Diet? Bad ventilation? Constipation? Even the color of the paint on the ward walls.

Finally he narrowed it down to who was assisting in the childbirth. You see ... in one ward, where doctors or medical students assisted, the death rates were much higher than in the second ward, where midwives did. Because unbelievable as it now seems, the doctors and students often came straight from the dissecting room, where they practiced delivering babies from corpses, to the maternity ward where they did it for real, and the concept of washing your hands for hygienic reasons was completely unknown at the time. Having bits of blood and body matter all over your front was almost a badge of honor. It meant you were a 'real' doctor.

In a decision that would save the lives of millions of women around the world, Semmelweis determined that the deaths could be reduced simply by doctors disinfecting their hands before assisting in childbirth.

But was he hailed as hero? Given promotion? Awarded riches and fame? Quite the opposite. His colleagues refused to believe that they could possibly be to blame. He was viewed as a country bumpkin with dangerous ideas on innovation. His ideas were ridiculed, rejected and ignored, and he was driven from Vienna in disgrace, back to Budapest where he died in a lunatic asylum.

The narrow-mindedness of his contemporaries in rejecting a discovery that would save millions of lives just because it conflicted with their ideas of the way the world worked is appalling to us nowadays. In fact scientists now disparagingly call the knee-jerk, reflexive rejection of new knowledge because it conflicts with accepted beliefs a 'Semmelweis Reflex'.

Why am I telling you this? Because during my presentation today I'm going to talk about the need for this company/department/ the way we do XYZ to change. I'm going to say some things that many of you will find controversial. I'm going to say some things that most of you will find surprising. I'm even going to say some things that a few of you may find offensive.

But if you disagree with what I'm saying, I want you to ask yourself a question: Are you disagreeing because you  think my logic is wrong, or is it just because what I’m saying makes you uncomfortable? In other words, is it just a 'Semmelweis Reflex'?


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