If You Want to Persuade People, Don’t ‘Treat the World As Facts’

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Facts are facts — except that they’re not.

In a session on idea propagation and influence at this year’s NeuroLeadership Summit, Wil Cunningham, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, explained that getting through to people is about more than simply getting things right. What we really need to focus on, he says, are assumptions about the world that they have about how things work. 

“We treat the world as facts,” he said, “without understanding the structure of belief system the fact operates in.”

If we want to reach someone, the research indicates that there are different conceptual gatekeepers to get by. You can convince someone if they think a fact will better their wellbeing. That’s step one.

Next, you have to satisfy what’s technically called “the expressive function,” or how a new fact fits within their sense of self and existing web of knowledge.

That’s because Cunningham says a lot of the “facts” that we’re trying to impress upon one another are social facts, a concept identified by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim a century ago. Social facts are true to the extent that everybody in a group agrees that they’re true, like that cash has a monetary value rather than being illustrated scraps of paper.  

“We sometimes hold beliefs to signify the groups we belong to,” Cunningham said. So if you’re pitching someone on a social fact — like that your product solves a common pain point — and it doesn’t blend with their sense of self and group identity, there’s a good chance they’ll reject it. The whole latticework of facts, preferences, and assumptions they’ve long internalized won’t mesh with the new information or argument. 

If you pass that self-belief test, then you can actually add new fact to their personal web of knowledge, Cunningham says.

The takeaway: Get to know your audience — and what they believe about the world — and describe things in those terms, not necessarily your own. That way, you can actually influence people and add insight to their lives. 

For more, watch the NeuroLeadership Summit livestream, broadcasting Thursday and Friday.

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