In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman poses the following challenge:
Glance at the image of this woman:
As quickly as you saw her dark hair, you probably knew she is angry. And chances are, you sensed something about the future as well—that she’s about to say some unpleasant words in a loud voice. All of this came to your mind automatically and effortlessly. You didn’t consciously intend to asses her mood or anticipate her actions. It just happened to you. It was what Kahneman calls “fast thinking.”
Then, he asks the reader to look at the following problem:
Now what did your mind do? Well, it probably recognized immediately that this is a multiplication problem, and that you could solve it with some level of effort.
Now, go ahead and solve the problem. Or at least get started on it.
You probably started by retrieving the cognitive program for multiplication that you learned in school, then you implemented it. It put a level of strain on your mind as you held numbers in your memory, kept track of where you were and where you were going, while holding onto the intermediate result. This kind of mental work is deliberate, effortful, and orderly. This is “slow thinking.”
Now, this wasn’t just an exercise of the mind. Your muscles tensed, your blood pressure went up, your heart rate increased, and your pupils dilated. Sounds similar to the fight-or-flight response, right?
Kahneman is a psychologist whose work in the areas of judgement and decision-making won a Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences a few years back. One of his biggest contributions was finding that we have two systems for thinking our way through life:
The first system operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
The second system is responsible for effortful mental activities, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
But in my opinion, his most notable finding is that…
The first, subconscious system RULES us.
Now, for all of us logical thinkers out there who take pride in thinking things through, weighing options, and making calculated decisions may feel offended. “That clearly doesn’t apply to me. I’m a rational thinker with agency over my decisions.”
IT TURNS OUT WE MAY NOT HAVE AS MUCH AGENCY OVER OUR DECISIONS AFTER ALL.
As Kahneman writes:
“When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book.”
He explains that both systems are active when we’re awake, but that the more emotional system runs automatically while the more logical system runs in a comfortable low-effort mode to conserve energy.
Throughout the day, the emotional system generates suggestions for the logical one— intuitions, biases, and feelings. If those feelings are endorsed by the logical system, they are converted into beliefs and voluntary actions.
This is largely what makes us feel like we’re logical beings. Because our actions feel logical. FEELING, being the operative word.
The truth is, people tend to make judgements and decisions based on their gut first, and rationalize them afterward to fit their logical frameworks.
What does this mean for persuasive storytelling exactly?
Well, it means we have to understand our audience really well. We need to know their biases, impressions, intuitions, and feelings about the message we’re about to share BEFORE we share it.
But there’s a problem.
We can’t ask them how they feel because we won’t get an accurate answer. It’s not that they’ll be lying to us, it’s that their intuitions and biases live in their subconscious minds, and by asking them how they feel about something, we’ll be tapping into their conscious, logical system, which doesn’t really have access to the subconscious one.
This is why focus groups don’t really work. At least, they shouldn’t be the only component of an information gathering strategy.
So how can we predict how people will feel about something before we share it with them?
Actions speak louder than words.
People’s behaviors are much better indicators of what they believe than what they say about their beliefs.
So watching how they engage on social media, reading their content on LinkedIn, accessing data about how they’ve interacted with a product in the past, basically immersing ourselves in what they say and do, will give us critically valuable insights into how best to communicate with them—and whether to try to combat their biases or play into them.
So the next time you have a message to share, whether it’s for a team of five or a large segment of your market, ask yourself, what do they believe? What do they THINK they believe? And make a concerted effort to watch for evidence before you move forward.
This may just be the difference between your message falling flat or sparking something great.