Working in tech at this present moment is refreshing. For several years there has been a movement towards acknowledging that those closest to a problem are best placed to fix it, and that the role of a manager is best placed to define desirable outcomes within which solutions may be freely found.
There are a number of reasons why this appeals. It removes the much of the political gameplay and focuses on getting results. It means that opinion is viewed as hypothesis that should be tested. And it views a failure as a learning opportunity. Opinions are allowed to change as learning is acquired.
However, this can make the rest of the world difficult. To a techie – and many who aren’t – the facts are clear and available so why don’t people use them? Why do they stick to an argument even when it apparently makes no sense?
Humans and the Cost of Change
There are many reasons for this. In fact, it’s only human to stick hard to a viewpoint once formed. Matthew Syed notes this in his book Black Box Thinking.
Festinger predicted that when the world didn’t end as a cult predicted, the cult’s belief would be strengthened rather than diminished. And this happened. Contrary evidence was presented and yet, far from changing their mind, the cult only reinforced their views.
This is due to the personal cost of change being high. In tech, things change every couple of years and learning is embraced. As things are going to change, you might as well get used to this and create environments which decide winners on the basis of evidence and deliberately make the personal cost of change low. This isn’t the case in the rest of the world.
Changing a viewpoint is expensive. Kate Gray and Chris Young have looked at how to manage change in an organisation: they note that there is no point targetting the extreme opposition simply because of the effort needed to change their mind. Far better to target the floating voters who are not entrenched and therefore will have a lower personal cost of change. (If you’re unfamiliar with their work, take a look here for a discussion on how they went about winning hearts and minds during a Change programme).
So the task of winning people is less than we might think: we don’t need to persuade everyone. But how can we change peoples minds at scale when facts seem to be ignored or wilfully discarded?
It is instructive to look at some examples of why people might make decisions.
To me the Brexit debate seemed clear as a simple question of risk. On the one side was a known entity, however flawed. On the other was complete uncertainty with no limit on the downside. What was always stated by the EU was that freedom of movement was the price for single market access. The Leave side seemed confident that this would not be the case (as my son often is when he demands ice cream without eating his dinner first) and made several promises that were not backed up by previous voting records of the politicians.
Despite this, they won
. Some of this was a clear dislike for the government, but much of this support seemed to have been built over the years by Nigel Farage. Love him or loath him, people appear to identify with him. And yet he is a public-school educated multi-millionaire who has little in common with many of those who voted for him. What they appear to have identified with is the persona of Farage: the man who refuses to obey the norms of politics and who stirs the hornets’ nest with controversial statements. He is clearly positioned as different to most politicians and thus stands out.
Our towns often suffer from dreadful pollution and the population is increasingly unhealthy. The Netherlands has shown that many short journeys can be made by cycle instead of car if good infrastructure is put in place: this is relatively inexpensive and has been shown to have positive outcomes on public health. It is also notable that motor traffic flows well here, taking advantage of what is almost a permanent end-of-term effect.
However, discussion around cycling tends not to focus on this, but on a persona of the cyclist as a law-breaking uninsured hooligan, intent on doing everything they can to cause crashes, annoy pedestrians and increase pollution in towns. Small wonder that the person typically making these connections cannot imagine themselves cycling short journeys in everyday clothes in safety away from motor traffic. Essentially, their persona is somebody who travels by car and there is no readily available persona of the family who travel by bike.
My hypothesis is that in both these situations, people seem to have identified with a persona that affirms their views and reinforces their conclusions. This is sometimes built around a person, but may simply be a concept (the parent who drives a 4×4; the lycra lout cyclist). A factual argument will simply bounce off this persona; indeed, it may even reinforce the strength of opposition.
Remember that at this point we only wish to target the undecided voter. While it’s tremendous fun to troll those who have an aversion to fact, it’s ultimately taking time away from more effective means of gaining support. Instead, would a fact-based story around a persona be more effective? That persona would identify with the concerns of the undecided voter but address them with the fact we’re attempting to portray.
We don’t wish to create another Be Like Bill character that is a patronising figure of fun. But when attempting to win over that vital undecided vote, we cannot simply deliver dry facts. Instead, we could represent the debate with believable personas that directly address the concerns voiced, rationalising the desired behaviour and ostracising the undesirable outcome. For the cycling discussion, give a platform to a disabled person who finds their bike gives them freedom and who needs good infrastructure. For the Remain Brexit discussion, give a voice to those who have concerns about immigration but believe the solution is to work with, rather than against, the EU.
At this stage, this is simply a clumsily-written hypothesis. I’d love to hear whether this has legs and, if so, could be developed further. Or, if this is established practice and I simply need to read more.