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Monday, March 26, 2012

Blame the person or the situation?

The concept is simple, the "Fundamental Attribution Error." This is a relatively simple idea yet nearly everyone is guilty of falling victim to it every day in a variety of settings.  Let's use the acronym "FAE" as a shorthand for referring to the Fundamental Attribution Error.  You commit the FAE when you believe that other people's actions are a result of the sort of people they are and have nothing to do with the environment or situation they are in.  You quickly forget the power of one's setting in affecting people's behavior and you attribute what you see entirely on the individual.

For instance, the most common example is blaming a poor person for his poverty and assuming he is poor because he is lazy and incompetent.  You easily forget that the poor individual lives in a completely different environment from yourself and doesn't have the same opportunities available.  He can't afford to drive around to interviews and networking events and he often depends on public transportation which can be unreliable, unpredictable, and involve considerably longer travel times than using a car.  You also have to realize that the poor individual most likely lives in a low-income neighborhood with very limited job opportunities.  As a result, there actually aren't that many jobs to even consider applying to.  Another difficulty involves crime rates. This individual has to keep focused in an environment where muggings, rape, rampant drug use, stabbings, and shootings are much more common than in higher-income neighborhoods. The person's family members might also be criminals and drug users and he might have a parent that abandoned him when he was young.  The list of realistic and likely difficulties is obviously extensive and I would be able to list more if I had a background on such issues or came from such a low-income and high-crime neighborhood myself.

Given all these difficulties, can poor individuals still fight through their environments and succeed? Of course. But, the issue here is that we far too quickly forget about the environment an individual operates in and we assume that his failures and shortcomings are due strictly to internal attributes.  Do you know how successful you would be if you operated in such a difficult environment as well?  There is no way to realistically answer that question without pressing the Restart button on your life and starting in similar circumstances.

Another example of a FAE that more people might be familiar with involves significant others or family members.  For instance, your loved one is indifferent or cold towards your wants and needs.  Do you automatically jump the gun and assume that he or she doesn't care about you as a person and doesn't care about your issues or do you instead realize that this person's behavior towards you at this moment might be related to stress that he or she is experiencing at work?  Or perhaps your loved one has dealt with difficult individuals all day and their patience is superbly thin at the moment.  If the coldness and indifference is a consistent and long-term issue then there might be other factors at play and your loved one might genuinely have problems against you as a person.  But, your initial assumption shouldn't involve blaming the individual, it should first involve considering powerful environmental influences that might be affecting his or her behavior towards you at the moment.

The next time you are ready to blame or get upset at either yourself or another person for failures and shortcomings, take a moment to first consider the situation and the environment at play.  This doesn't mean that you should excuse incompetence, laziness, malice, betrayal, and other despicable  behaviors.  This simply means that you should take a more thorough approach when judging people and explicitly consider the influence of the situation and other environmental factors.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Keep it local

In a previous entry I discussed some ideas on how to get your audience to not only pay attention to what you are saying but actually care as well.  The takeaway lesson was using  themes and priorities that your audience is likely to care about and connecting them to your ideas which they probably don't care about yet.

Often times, when people are presented with an issue, their first reaction is assuming that what you're talking about doesn't affect them.  Even if you appeal to topics and people they care about, you might still not make the connection because they will consider the issue or problem relevant for others and not them.

For instance, you are tasked with giving a persuasive presentation on traffic congestion reduction strategies to city planners and engineers from cities across California.  Your goal is to push these professionals towards adopting pre-emptive measures to ward off potential traffic increases in the near future.  However, the problem is that a lot of these planners work in cities that do not have traffic issues and they believe that the problem is only present in dense and congested areas such as Los Angeles.  You strategy in this case should focus on making the problem relevant and local.  You need to clearly show that congestion problems are guaranteed to arrive after certain population and car ownership thresholds are reached and surpassed.  To drive (pun, although unintentional at first, is now intended ; )  ) the point home even further, show population growth projections for the less urban areas and clearly show that they are headed in the same direction as the dense urban areas.

Now, let's consider the case of a non-profit group fighting for clean water rights in California.  The main barrier that such a group faces is showing that contaminated water issues aren't just relevant in Northern California's farming communities where nitrate contamination is a serious problem.  Whenever this group wants to spread its message in a new community, it has to connect the problem to the local area.  For instance, there are many contaminated wells in Southern California as well.  The problem actually isn't just a problem for the north.  By showing that even local water supplies have been contaminated and need remediation, the group has a much higher chance of making their message relevant which can lead to greater support.  Another option is to show the clear progression of water contamination in the north to major urban areas in the south.  Southern population centers do get a majority of their water from the Northern California after all.  If the source of water becomes contaminated, it doesn't matter where the water travels, it has already been contaminated.

Whatever strategy you ultimately decide to take, just remember that if the issue isn't local or relevant, your ideas are going to have a difficult time gaining traction.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Prime it up

"Priming" is a very interesting and potentially manipulative phenomena. Put simply, priming involves the actor being unknowingly influenced by something or someone in his environment.  Your behavior or thoughts may be affected by an environmental influence and you may never even realize it.

The best way to understand this concept is through clear examples.  For instance, restaurants often use warm colors such as orange, brown, and red inside their restaurants.  Consumer research has shown that warm colors (especially REDare able to to stimulate appetite.  The color red also "instantly attracts attention and it  makes people excited, energetic, and increases the heart rate."  All of this occurs without you even consciously realizing it or controlling it.  This is an excellent example of priming because you're "primed" and can find yourself feeling hungrier than usual and excited to eat something even if you didn't seem to have much of an appetite initially.

Consider another example. You are leaving a coffee shop, and on the way out, you see a group of smokers.  As you pass by, the wind blows all their smoke in your face and you start coughing and get annoyed.  Later on during the day, a person with a clipboard approaches you and asks you if you have time to sign an anti-smoking petition.  Chances are, you're more likely to be open to the idea because of your previous experience during the day.  The smoke being blown in your face primed you to be more open to the idea of signing that petition.

Now, let's tie this back to effective communication and influencing your audience.  Let's imagine you are the head of the Bureau of Street Services department in a large city such as Los Angeles.  You are a believer in native gardens and want to push the city to invest into creating such gardens at publicly owned sites.  You believe that native gardens can be aesthetically pleasing while also providing benefits such as water savings and stormwater quality and quantity control.  To effectively influence your audience, you should figure out a way of priming them before they even arrive to your presentation or meeting.  Hold the meeting at a location that has beautiful native gardens along the path to the entrance of the building.  Such a strategy will effectively prime your audience and it will also serve as a concrete and visual example.  As discussed in previous posts, being concrete with your examples is quite effective.  Seeing a real live example of what you are going to discuss is as concrete as it can possibly get.

Often times, effective priming will most likely be difficult or perhaps even expensive to set up but you should always keep the idea in the back of your mind and utilize it whenever it's realistically possible.


Friday, March 2, 2012

How to frame an issue

How an issue is framed can have significant effects an a viewer's attitudes. For instance, persuasive messages that are presented in a negative or threatening manner have been shown to be more effective at encouraging people to act. An example of this can be seen in energy conservation. If given the choice between portraying energy conservation measures as saving customers $350 a year or resulting in the loss of $350, it might actually be more effective to take the negative route and warn customers that they will lose money if they do not change their energy consumption habits. Such an approach might be more successful because people are loss averse. Experiments with gambling have shown that given the choice in taking a risk with a coin toss, subjects were only willing to take the gamble if the size of the reward from getting a heads was roughly twice as large as the loss from getting a tails.

Another study looked at the effects of threatening messages on environmental attitudes. The conclusions of several energy conservation studies were analyzed and the authors found that if the subjects believed environmental deterioration was imminent and local, they were much more likely to show environmentally responsible behavior. Part of the reason for such an observation might be because “awareness of severe and/or widespread harmful consequences to other people tends to activate the feeling that action should be taken to avert or alleviate the harm.” Such findings give insight into how environmental messages can be framed to have a greater effect.

These findings are a bit counter-intuitive but scaring people and focusing on losses seems to have a stronger effect on behavioral change than focusing on rewards and benefits.


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