Monthly Archives: April 2010

Influence through story telling

Howard Gardner’s exploration of “Leading Minds – an anatomy of leadership” could easily, and nearly was, called an exploration of influence. This got me thinking about the recent British-first election debates between Brown, Cameron and Clegg. More on this later …

Gardner draws a distinction between direct and indirect leaders. Direct leaders such as politicians, military men and business gurus seek to exercise power and influence people; whereas indirect leaders such as scientists, novelists and painters lead indirectly through their work and seek to influence people through the creation of symbolic products. Gardner reveals the key to leadership for both direct and indirect leaders: the ability to create a story that affects the thoughts, feelings and actions of others.

Harry Truman said: “A leader is a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don’t want to do and like it.

Gardner’s thesis is that leaders achieve their effectiveness chiefly through the stories they relate, not just the stories that they tell. In addition to communicating these stories, leaders often embody these stories themselves. The way in which direct leaders conduct their lives – their embodiments – must be clearly perceptible to those they are trying to influence.

Gardner also categorises leaders according to the innovativeness of the stories that they try to tell. The ordinary leader, by definition the most common one, simply relates the traditional story of his or her group as effectively as possible. He does not seek to stretch the consciousness of the contemporary audience. The innovative leader takes a story that is latent within the population and gives it a fresh twist. Often they may be revising themes and forms that have fallen into disuse. By far the rarest individual is the visionary leader. Not content to relate a current story or to reactivate a story drawn from a remote or recent past, this individual actually creates a new story. One may quarrel with the categorisation of Thatcher as innovative, whilst Gandhi may earn the title of visionary. Indeed Gandhi, in his characteristic magnanimousness, is reputed to have said something like: “I merely stood in front of a crowd of people that was going somewhere”. [Anybody know the actual quotation ?]

Nick Clegg appears to have done well out of the first round of TV debate. What kind of story was he trying to relate ? For me, the simplest message of all was: [my paraphrase] “Politics as you’ve seen it is broken and discredited, that was the other two parties – I am a credible alternative for change.” Nick Clegg even opened the debate with statement:

“I believe the way things are is not the way things have to be. You’re going to be told tonight by these two that the only choice you can make is between two old parties who’ve been running things for years. I’m here to persuade you that there is an alternative.

Clegg went on to talk about it’s no good politician’s talking about change, they’ve got to start delivering.

The infamous “wiggle meter” shot through the roof when Clegg talked about the expenses debacle.

Only time will tell whether the wiggle meter continues to keep rising. But, one thing is certain we now, at least for this election period, are into a true period of three-party politics.

More on Gardner in a future blog post …


How to pull ? – According to a behavioural scientist …

I’ve previously blogged on how it is a bad assumption to assume that everyone is rationale. In fact Professor Dan Ariely argues in his book “Predictably Irrational” that it is a far better assumption to ‘veer off’ for certain known biases in the way we approach things as human beings. We might like to think we are very rationale or Spock-like; but actually we are much more like Homer Simpson when it comes to taking decisions.

I recently did a radio show on Radio Hartley Wintney on this topic. I tempted the listeners that I might cover “how to pull, according to a behavioural scientist“. However, unfortunately I ran out of time. (Time seems to flow at a different speed inside that radio studio). So I decided to blog about it instead. If you felt like you missed out, it’s well with watching Dan Ariely on TED, a regular contributor to Wired magazine, cover this topic.

A few of the key points that we can learn:

1) Firstly, you should share your night out with a few mates, but not too many of them.

Three is an ideal number to give the prospective partner a choice but not too big a choice to confuse. There’s evidence from scientific studies of the optimum number of jams to display in the supermarket that too much choice can actually confuse the decision-maker to such a degree that it becomes “all-too-complicated” to buy jam at all and instead sales are actually reduced when there is too much choice. So much for the Western dogma, that consumerism is all about providing choices. (And, yes, isn’t it incredible that there are ‘scientific studies’ on the selection of jam !).

2) Providing a third decoy choice to tip the balance in your favour

There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that a carefully selected set of three people could be an ideal number, if you’re hoping to get lucky with the opposite sex. However, you do have to pick the other two very carefully. Let’s assume that you want to “load the dice” to improve your chances of getting lucky. One set of scientific studies show that you want to set things up so that there is a difficult choice between two out of the three people out that night – let’s call them A and B. Perhaps, A is fun to be with, whereas B is more classically good-looking. We’ll set this up such that there are two attributes that are typically difficult to choose between and tend to be more a case of personal choice. You might think that it is just a matter of luck, as to whether you find the right girl who is more predisposed to one of these two qualities. Wrong !

In this case study, let’s assume that you are person A and you want to be be selected. According to the study, the best way to subtlely engineer things is to add a third choice, who I call the “decoy choice”: choice C. Weirdly, the absence or inclusion of this third choice makes a significant difference to the percentage of people who select either A or B, even if no-one actually selects C. How strange is that ?

Let’s imagine that things are set up “fairly” and an even proportion of the female population select A or B, when there are just two choices i.e. when you go on the pull with just one other mate. The way to engineer the situation is that the decoy choice, option C, should be engineered to be very similar to yourself; but have a clearly obvious “defect”. Hence, option C might be better described as “Option A minus”. I know, at first sight, it appears irrational; but the existence of the third option can significantly effect the proportion of people who select option A over and above Option B.

So the question in this hypothetic example is: Do you have a slightly uglier brother? Taking him along on your expedition could seriously increase your chances of pulling. It is, as if, the brain shies away from the relatively difficult choice of A or B, which might tax the brain and force it to do some difficult kind of analysis. Instead, the brain focuses on the easier part of the challenge and identifies that “A” is better than “A minus” and does less thinking about the harder question of whether B is prefererable to A (or A minus). It appears as if the mind has already been made up that A must be better, because it is better than A minus.

If you like: the evidence suggests that our brains work much more like Homer Simpson than Spock.

Tests show that the percentage of people favouring A over B (which we previously set at 50-50%) now swing over in favour of A. Perhaps sub-consciously and instinctively we are first voting for “A minus” but then realise that we can “upgrade” from an “A-minus” to an “A”. There is no strong evidence for this particular explanation, but the numbers do eerily seem to suggest it might be true.

Perhaps, even wierder than the fact that social scientists do experiments on our selection of jam in the supermarket shelves is the fact that they also do experiments on our selection of partners in a night-club ! Perhaps, I picked the wrong discipline to study ?

Everybody is rationale, aren’t they?

Imagine that you had bought a bottle of wine for £6. Also, imagine that you have a threshold where you won’t spend more than £10 on a bottle of wine.

Now, imagine that you find out that the bottle of wine that you kept for a bit is now worth £30 – what do you do?

I’d probably drink it, savouring it a little if I was on my own, or make a bit of a story out of the tale if I was sharing it with friends. This isn’t what the mythical “rationale man” would do, he’d sell it at the market value and if he still fancied a bottle of wine, go and buy 3 more bottles to drink!

Human beings aren’t very rationale. The example above brings out a couple of human behavioural principles and flaws in traditional economic thinking:

– The drive for consistency – even Dilbert talks about this one (maybe for a future blog post). Human beings find it necessary to appear consistent. We bought the wine so we must have wanted it. In fact, the re-valueing of the wine (by a third party) has vindicated our original purchasing decision and we now want to try that bottle even more.

– Loss aversion – We’re much more sensitive to losses than we are to gains. The loss of a high quality bottle of wine which we got for a song is nearly always going to out-weigh our desire for those extra bottles of bog-standard wine.

Feeling thirsty? Go and crack open a bottle of wine.


I’ve mentioned Cialdini before. He coined five “rules” of influencing others:

1) Reciprocity: the art of give and take
2) Commitment and consistency: hobgoblins of the mind
3) Social proof: truths are like us
4) Liking: the friendly thief
5) Authority: directed deference
6) Scarcity: the rule of the few.

We’ll explore each of these in future posts.


Cialdini’s seminal work on the psychology of “Influence” begins with an Einstein quote: “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” It’s worth stopping and mulling on it … …

De Bono argues for a world with more Simplicity in his book on that title. Modern systems can be unnecessarily complicated. The challenge of achieving simplicity requires a lot of creative techniques.

A great design often appears staggeringly beautiful in it’s simplicity but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t require “99% perspiration” in order to get there. Whilst the end product might be beautiful, the design process can appear very messy, especially when you are in the middle of it.

More to follow ….

Make things fun to get things done

Volkswagen’s fun theory is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.

I loved their prize winning entry on a possible future for speeds cameras. Why are they seen as such a negative thing ? Imagine a world where … …

Can we get more people to obey the speed limit by making it fun to do? The idea here is capture on camera the people who keep to the speed limit. They would have their photos taken and registration numbers recorded and entered into a lottery. Winners would recieve cash prizes and be notified by post. Better still, the winning pot would come from the people who were caught speeding.