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Sunday, February 14, 2010

How Not to Preach to the Choir

I recently published a post on cognitive conservatism and the climate change debate over at one of our other blogs. It got me thinking about the topic of cognitive dissonance in general.

Whereas cognitive conservatism is "People's tendency to retain their beliefs, intellectual as well as religious, in the face of what strike other people as conclusively refuting arguments or clearly disconfirming evidence" (Barbara Herrnstein Smith), cognitive dissonance describes the feeling of discomfort we feel during that confrontation between belief and evidence.

I frequently run in to both among marketing professionals. In general, people prefer having their personal prejudices confirmed over authentic analysis.

Now, cognitive dissonance can be a valuable teaching tool, because when a student overcomes the initial belief set by accepting the incontrovertible evidence, the lesson is generally well learned and has a significant impact.

However, cognitive dissonance only has this beneficial effect on the open-minded. Cognitive conservatism, like Douglas Adams' peril-sensitive sunglasses, blocks rational consideration of empirical evidence. Climate change deniers, for example, may counter hard scientific data with an anecdote about the weather. Phew! Cognitive dissonance averted!

Why is it that we tend to believe anecdotal evidence, often in the face of overhelming scientific evidence to the contrary? Michael Shermer, Scientific American:
"The recent medical controversy over whether vaccinations cause autism reveals a habit of human cognition -- thinking anecdotally comes naturally, whereas thinking scientifically does not."
As James Lovelock says, our brains are belief machines. We form beliefs based on anecdotes quite readily, and those beliefs often remain unshaken despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. That is the power of narrative. It's also the power of conspiracy theory, and also how charismatic leaders have led us astray throughout history.

The reason that narrative has such power is that we make connections instinctively as a product of millennia of experience in the natural world. We create "false positives" (the belief that A and B are connected) from anecdotal evidence.

This mental habit has held us in good stead, because false positives, at least at the personal level, are usually harmless. If you hear a sound (A) outside your cave, and you associate that sound with (B) a sabre-toothed tiger, then this association acts to preserve your life, even if not true on each occasion you hear the sound. A false negative, believing that sound (A) is not a sabre-toothed tiger when it actually is, will likely result in your departure from the gene pool.

Scientific method, on the other hand, has been around for only a few hundreds of years. But if we're going to treat sales and marketing as sciences (which is what lean marketing proposes), we their practitioners must draw on more than just anecdotal evidence. We need to draw on human experience, tell a story, have a conversation with our customers, but we also need to use scientific method to measure our efforts and improve them continuously.

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received in my life came from an old Steelworkers Union labour negotiator. He said to me: "Never believe your own bullshit."

Or in the words of the ancient proverb: "Trust in Allah, but tie your camels."

The point is that we need narrative to overcome both cognitive dissonance and cognitive conservatism, but we have to back it up with science, and more particularly, with scientific method.

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