The Power of Influence

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – The Talmud

It was with this quote that I began a fascinating discussion with neuroscientist, author and professor Tali Sharot. In this era of technology-fueled confirmation bias, particularly how the proliferation of alternative facts shape our decision-making process, I was interested in taking a deeper dive into the science behind our collective motives and actions. Specifically, how held beliefs, and the resistance to new ideas, are motivated by our need to reaffirm preexisting notions of the world and topics we’re most passionate about.

Fresh off of our joint discussion at the Holmes Global PR Summit, in the video below we navigate through a host of themes and theses around the power of influence, and its impact on confirmation bias. Here are a few of the moments that I found most relevant in today’s world of algorithm-based, and never-ending, news cycles…

People perceive things through the lens of their beliefs:
Tali poignantly begins with this powerful declaration, “People tend to take in data that confirms what they believe or what they want to believe, but tend to dismiss data or opinions that don’t quite fit what they want to believe.” Simply put, an “I’m right and here’s why” conversation starter is destined to only drive a deeper wedge within any two parties. Common ground should be a foundational table stakes for any conversation you hope to gain traction in. More on that below.

Big data doesn’t mean big change:
Even facts, backed by scientific data, don’t persuade and unite us. Tali described how the brain evaluates input along with its resistance to accept an alternate point of view. “Strong opinions are very hard to change, even if they are incorrect.” Data can, however, shift a point of view if they already share a similar perspective. She referenced her fascinating work on climate change as a prime example of this paradigm.

Algorithms reinforce our biases:
“Confirmation bias is not new. People were always seeking information that fits what they believe, they were always more likely to listen to people that agree with them. But today, because we have so much information, and we can find on the internet ‘evidence’ or data to whatever we want to believe, the problem is much larger.” The proliferation of data is doing more to divide than unite us. And it’s not just happening on a conscious level. We discussed how Google gives you information that it thinks you want based on previous searches, location, peer recommendations, etc. We’re being presented with selective information on a daily basis without even being aware of it.

Don’t fight the bias:
Perhaps most importantly, when I asked Tali for her advice to marketers and communicators, her solution was one that I’m sure will resonate with anyone. “When people disagree with you they are less likely to take in the information you’re giving them. Start from a place of common ground, of common beliefs, of common motivations. Is there something we agree on? Can we get to the same end result by highlighting the things we agree on, not the things we disagree on?” Sage advice for any modern-day communications counselor.

About Rob Flaherty

Rob Flaherty is chairman & CEO of Ketchum, one of the world’s top communication firms, with offices and affiliates in 130 markets in more than 70 countries. Rob leads Ketchum’s Global Leadership Council to guide the strategy, client service and performance of the agency. During Rob’s tenure as CEO, Ketchum has significantly expanded the firm’s social, digital and content capabilities, including opening real-time content marketing hubs called StoryWorks, in dozens of markets. Follow Rob on Twitter at @flahertyrob.