Monday, October 6, 2008

Thinking problems and their implications for communication

I'm reading this book called "Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 basic mistakes we make in thinking" by Thomas Kida. In it, he lists 6 tendencies we have that keep us from thinking clearly. These mistakes are:
  • We prefer stories to statistics
  • We seek to confirm, not to question, our ideas
  • We rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events
  • We sometimes misperceive the world around us
  • We tend to oversimplify our thinking
  • We have faulty memories
Thomas' book is full of illustrations of these "mistakes", but you'll probably recognize the truth of them just to read the list.

I got to thinking about what these tendencies suggest for designing communications. Obviously, that first bullet relates specifically. You can be far more persuasive with stories than numbers. Steven Denning, author of "The Leader's Guide to Storytelling" and "The Secret Language of Leadership", tells the story of how he persuaded the World Bank to become a knowledge-sharing organization by telling a story about the CDC. Not giving lots of facts and figures. Telling a story. I'm trying to build that skill now, because I know it takes advantage of one of our "mistakes in thinking".

The second bullet is about the confirmation bias. Since we all have a tendency to seek information that confirms our beliefs, it would be in my best interest, as a communicator, to set people's expectations about what their beliefs are, then provide information that supports that expectation. Framing is a skill that politicians have brought to an art form, and one that can help drive home a message to an audience through use of imagery, mindset and expectation.

The third bullet point refers to our tendency to interpret nothing as chance. We are pattern-recognizing creatures, even when there are no patterns to be seen. This is particularly true, apparently, when we are under stress. In our quest to find meaning around everything, we are much more prone to fall victim to superstition and illusory correlations. The good part of this for a communicator, of course, is that it means that we are all thirsty for information that fits into our understanding of the world. So, if a story can be framed appropriately, and the right amount of pepper (er, information) added... we have a savory mix for being compelling.

Of course, the fourth bullet point falls out of the second and third, as do the fifth and, ultimately, sixth.

It seems to me that it can be remarkably easy to lead people astray in their thinking. This is scary power for a thought leader to have. I wonder if this is how our world has ended up in the rather precarious financial state we are in today...