Sunday, January 8, 2017

You are who you empathize with: Reflections on Daniel Kahneman’s 'Thinking, Fast and Slow'

When I think back on Kahneman’s 400+ page tome, without fail there’s one idea that comes to mind before any other. I’ll quote the passage here, because it offers a fascinating perspective on how the words we encounter in our daily lives influence our behavior in ways we'd never expect [bolding mine]:
…priming is not restricted to concepts and words. You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware. In an experiment that became an instant classic, the psychologist John Bargh and his collaborators asked students at New York University — most aged eighteen to twenty-two — to assemble four-word sentences from a set of five words (for example, “finds he it yellow instantly”). For one group of students, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. When they had completed that task, the young participants were sent to do another experiment in an office down the hall. That short walk was what the experiment was about. The researchers unobtrusively measured the time it took people to get from one end of the corridor to the other. As Bargh had predicted, the young people who had fashioned a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly more slowly than the others.
The “Florida effect” involves two stages of priming. First, the set of words primes thoughts of old age, though the word old is never mentioned; second, these thoughts prime a behavior, walking slowly, which is associated with old age. All this happens without any awareness. When they were questioned afterward, none of the students reported noticing that the words had had a common theme, and they all insisted that nothing they did after the first experiment could have been influenced by the words they had encountered. The idea of old age had not come to their conscious awareness, but their actions had changed nevertheless. This remarkable priming phenomenon — the influencing of an action by the idea — is known as the ideomotor effect. Although you surely were not aware of it, reading this paragraph primed you as well. If you had needed to stand up for a glass of water, you would have been slightly slower than usual to rise from your chair — unless you happen to dislike the elderly, in which case research suggests that you might have been slightly faster than usual! 
The ideomotor link also works in reverse. A study conducted in a German university was the mirror image of the early experiment that Bargh and his colleagues had carried out in New York. Students were asked to walk around a room for 5 minutes at a rate of 30 steps per minute, which was about one-third their normal pace. After this brief experience, the participants were much quicker to recognize words related to old age, such as forgetful, old, and lonely. Reciprocal priming effects tend to produce a coherent reaction: if you were primed to think of old age, you would tend to act old, and acting old would reinforce the thought of old age. 
Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 53-4)
Have you ever been in a relationship in which, slowly, over time, you’ve decided to share less and less of yourself, to the point where you become like ships passing in the night? Maybe it’s a parent, a friend, a sibling or a lover. This person fails to empathize with you — fails to listen without judgement — and so you begin to phase them out.

In return for their lack of empathy, you stop listening.

And yet, in other relationships, you cannot keep yourself from sharing what’s on your mind. These friends/parents/siblings, whether by talent or by practice, know how to make you feel comfortable, safe, heard.

Of all the books, articles, lectures, podcasts, etc. that I’ve listened to over the past year, I’d consider these few paragraphs above to be among the top 5 most influential I’ve encountered. They’ve prompted hours of reflection and deliberation and, ultimately, led to me making a significant change in my career, even a 3,000+ mile move across the country.

Because I work in marketing, I spend much of my time trying to understand the people I’m trying to reach. I need to know them better than they know themselves — their dreams, their fears, their hopes. But this is not just the job of a marketer. It is the job of any person who cares about communicating well.

To get through to people, you must empathize with them. You must know how to connect, to build trust and rapport, to inspire and motivate.

None of this can be done if you haven’t a clue who you’re speaking with. The better you understand the other person’s hopes, dreams and fears, the more directly you can speak to them.

This is all par for the course in marketing. It’s an idea that’s been articulated and re-articulated by countless marketers/salesmen/politicians/rhetoricians/writers throughout history. But my favorite rendition comes from Denny Hatch in his book Method Marketing.

Hatch compares marketing to Konstantin Stanislavsky’s philosophy of “method acting,” saying: “You cannot write copy or make a live sales pitch without getting inside the head of the person to whom you are communicating and becoming that person.

This inspires a question.

If the incidental language we’re exposed to (via a word-game, in the case of the study) unconsciously influences our behavior, what about the language that we deliberately expose ourselves to?

For example, if you’re writing to seniors worried about their finances and health, you immerse yourself in the language they use to describe their world. Do you not, as a result, begin to think and act as they do?

If spending 5 minutes with words like “bald,” “forgetful,” and “wrinkle” can lead you to move like you’re three times your age, what happens when you spend months or years forcing yourself to see the world through the eyes of such people?

Do you not begin to feel older? Do you not begin to feel the aches in your back? And tell me, what happens to your lease on life?

Here’s the big question I took away from Kahneman’s book:

Who do you spend your time empathizing with? Are you comfortable becoming those people?