Influence Ad Hominem – December 2022
First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers
In a series of experiments at Dartmouth College, researchers tested the ability of people to change their opinions based on new information. In one experiment, subjects were given fake newspaper articles that confirmed a certain position (for example, that Irag possessed weapons of mass destruction, justifying the U.S. invasion of that country.) This was not meant to change people’s position on the war, which it did not. Those who opposed the war still opposed it, and those who supported it now felt they had more reason to do so. However, when the subjects were given new articles that reversed the information, not only did those who supported the war stick to their position, they dug in even deeper. In fact, it was discovered nationwide that supporters of the Iraq War continued to believe in the existence of WMDs long after the Bush administration concluded that there were none. Some justified their belief by saying that it only proved Saddam Hussein’s cleverness, that he could hide the weapons so well that we never found them.
The researchers called this the backfire effect. Information that opposes a strong opinion can sometimes cause us to resist change even more; believing in the misperception more than before. This is because people rarely believe that facts are simply facts. If we did, debates would remain in the realm of logic. We would focus only on action and consequence. Facts would remain external to ourselves, and when facts change with new information, we would not see it as a reflection of our own sense of worth. Sadly, facts are rarely external. The facts we believe are ad hominem. The facts we believe represent us as a person. When you attack my facts, you attack me.
Influence is not necessary when everyone is moving in the same direction. Influence, by its nature, involves a correction—of facts, beliefs, behavior, and decisions. But if challenging facts risks challenging the very person who believes in them, how can we ever hope to achieve harmony at work, or at home? The answer lies in what Dr. Robert Cialdini calls Liking (read his book, Influence: Science and Practice). When we like someone, we don’t take things like new information personally. A likeable person doesn’t shove facts down our throats, or lord them over us with a “I know more than you do” attitude. A likeable person shares facts. New information is presented in such a way that everyone can use the information to their best benefit.
A buddy of mine, Dave, is really good at this. Once, I was espousing some worldview that I was quite sure of, but Dave had availed himself of new research. Rather than correct me, Dave said, “You know, I used to think that same thing until I read this new research about that. You are really interested in this subject, so I think you will find it fascinating too.” As Dave showed me the research, he kept saying things like, “Isn’t this cool?” and “I knew you would like this, ‘cause it is right up your alley.” By the time we were done, I had completely reversed my position, and not once did I feel corrected. Dave realized that all facts are ad hominem, so he made my personal connection to the facts a positive instead of a negative.
Politicians have long used the tactic of attacking the messenger. If you don’t like the facts your opponent is reporting, attack the person delivering them. Sadly, this approach has become the strategy of choice of late. This may work to win elections, but there is a cost. People who attack the messenger may be viewed as powerful, but they are only liked by those who already liked them in the first place. This approach rarely changes minds. Business leaders have no such luxury. Likeable people don’t divide others, they connect them. They build morale, they don’t destroy it. They realize that long-term relationships depend on likeable personalities, not just winners.
To keep ad hominem attacks out of influence 1) keep your emotions in check, 2) discuss the situation objectively without focusing on who believes what, 3) never disrespect others’ beliefs (remember, everything makes sense to the person who believes it), 4) only state your position once you can clearly articulate someone else’s, and 5) show how a change of facts can still support someone’s world view.
An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com