Winning, Losing, and Persuasion: Getting Spock and your Proto Human in Line

No one likes to lose. This is one of those things that someone actually did a scientific study on, and the rest of us are sitting here wondering who got a grant funded for that. But it’s true: no one likes to lose; and our fear of losing is GREATER than our joy in winning.

To wit: Let’s say I have you pick a coin out of your pocket; a quarter or a euro or a shilling. It’s your coin, so it’s your choice. Now let’s say I propose the following bet: every time that coin flips to “heads”, I pay you $10. Every time it flips to “tails”, you pay me $1. You will take that bet (statistically speaking, that is, most people will).

Now let’s say I keep your potential win still at $10, but your loss at $2. You’ll like it less, but you’ll still take the bet. Most people drop off when the potential loss is $4. Their rationale is this: $4 is a significant percentage of their potential win. This makes sense.

Until you realize a coin toss is a 50-50 chance, each time.

For example, let’s say you take the $4 version of the bet (you’re brave like that). We flip the coin 10 times, each time with a 50% chance of hitting “heads”. Over a large enough data set that means chances are pretty decent that you will have 5 wins and 5 losses; so you’d “win” $50 and “lose” $20. In short, you’d net positive just for playing, by $30.

In theory, it’s a good bet up to values of $10 on win and $9 on lose (you’d still be ahead $5). However, people do not behave this way. The urge to *avoid losing* will actually lead people to make unwise economic decisions. (Actually, this goes far beyond economy – some people will make unwise OTHER decisions just to avoid their notion of what “losing” is).

Evolutionarily speaking this makes sense: say you’re a proto-human and you’re ambling about in the jungles/desert/savannah/etc. You see a flock of birds take off in the distance with no audible warning. You either : 1. Bet they got a wild hair and just decided to up and fly, or 2. Bet there’s a predator nearby and amble your way to the nearest tree, just in case.

The person who bet #1 would likely DIE each time they bet wrongly. The person betting #2 would still live if they bet right or wrong. And so we learn that “losing” – betting wrong, making poor decisions, whatever tag you want to give it – has a cost. And over the millennia, this is drilled into our little proto-human bit of our brain.

The logic-driven, numbers-based sides of our brain can argue all we want with the proto human side of our brain, but proto human will not give in (or not give in easily). This is especially true if we’re not paying attention. The same gut instinct to avoid losing is why people fall for the “sale” that’s on the end caps in a store (try checking those prices against those in-line some time), why they rush to sell (or buy) a house without doing enough of their homework (guilty!), and why, despite all logical evidence, they will race ahead of you on the freeway at 80mph only in order to be sitting at the traffic light ahead that much longer than you, when your car ambles up.

A lot of the job of a change manager – one managing change for themselves or others – is to manage this proto-human angst over losing. People don’t like to “lose” what they are good at/familiar with over the unknown new stuff, they don’t like to “lose” control over where a project or team is going, they don’t like to “lose” the path they’ve envisioned for themselves.

In the book ‘Switch’ by Chip Heath, the idea presented is that when instituting change you have to convince the Rider (the logical part of the human brain you’re working with, let’s call it “Spock”), convince the Elephant (the proto-human), and give them a path to go down (here’s what I want you to do). This sort of change-management can work internally too.

Say you want to lose weight. You need to convince your Rider (this is the part of your brain that goes to purchase nonfat yogurt and lean cuisines and makes you order the salad at dinner), your Elephant (this is the part of your brain that sees someone brought in doughnuts so you’ll be “good” and only have half – well, a whole one, but you skipped breakfast – maybe one and a half because you’re going to the gym – oh what the hell your diet’s busted may as well eat two), and show them the path (I will be able to wear these jeans/this bikini/see my cholesterol go down).

The great part of the above example is you already know what appeals to your proto human and your Spock human (forgive the oxymoron). (Just because your proto human wins out more often than not doesn’t mean you don’t know how to do it, it just means your Spock human is not paying attention).

Management gets tricky when you have to convince other people’s proto humans and Spocks.

(By the way, by “management” we’re not necessarily talking people who work for you. “Management” means managing other people – by design or by proxy – and can extend to family/friends/acquaintances/etc.  You just don’t notice it, because you will tend to hang around people who require very little “management” – their Spock and proto-human already align with yours, pretty much).

The best way, then, to appeal to a Spock is lots of shiny charts and graphs, statistics, quoted sources, approved, sound, logic (theirs). The traditional best way to appeal to the proto-human is to turn the loss into a gain: what is in it for THEM, why is this worth their time, how will life be better/easier once it’s done. Alternatively, though, it is better to demonstrate how their life/work stream/issue will be worse if it is NOT done (again, losing is more important than winning, in a sense).

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