Podcast transcript: How can we make common ground the foundation for real change?

40 min approx | 11 Oct 2019

Antonio Damasio

The brain is often referred to as if it exists in a vacuum, but it does not. The brain exists inside a living body, and it operates in relation to that body, not just in relation to the outside world. Bacteria are intelligent beings, but have no knowledge of that fact. Certain components of human behavior are not unlike those of bacteria. They are effective, competent — but they are not made conscious to us.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Welcome to The Better Question, EY’s podcast series that will answer the questions that will help you lead your business through this transformative age.

What will happen when trends that we already know are underway today start to transform society?

I am Yassmin Abdel-Magied, engineer by trade and writer by vocation.

Over the course of six episodes, we are asking some of the most probing minds around the globe about the world-changing issues that are just over the forecast horizon. And we are asking them, what’s after what’s next?

And I have here with me writer, futurist and the curator of What’s after what’s next?, Chris Meyer.

Chris Meyer

Great to be with you, Yassmin. I am Chris Meyer, and my ongoing work with EYQ, the EY global think tank, is focused on the question, what’s after what’s next?

Abdel-Magied

Hello, Chris. What are we getting into today?

Meyer

Today we are going to talk about something vital to every one of us, which is behavior, what we know about how we choose the actions we choose, and how to influence that in others.

Abdel-Magied

Now, Chris, that sounds very interesting, but is that not a little broad?

Chris: The more the easy decisions — that is, the decisions we can calculate the answers to — can be done by algorithms, the more the real role of managers becomes to influence others. At the top of this episode, we heard from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, probably the world’s most respected authority on how the brain creates consciousness and emotion, and author of bestsellers, including Descartes’ Error. Antonio’s book addressed what Descartes said, which is, “I think, therefore I am.” And he said, no, it is “I am, therefore I think.”

So, in our last century, we have disproved the mind and body split, and in fact, they are much more connected than we have ever realized.

Damasio

Brain imaging has brought great advantages in terms of diagnosis of neurological conditions and by allowing us to understand better brain function.

Meyer

But as we study the brain and how influence actually works physiologically, we are discovering some things that could make ordinary managers into more influential leaders. For centuries, we believed that the mind and the body were separate, and modern neuroscience has showed us that the two are inseparable, and the physiology of our brain and the choices we make and the behavior are all one thing.  So, today, we are asking the better question: How can we make common ground the foundation for real change?

So, Yassmin, if you think about studying behavior and the brain as a neuroscientist and a marketer, what question would you want to ask the two of them?

Abdel-Magied

How do we identify the behaviors that might be our gut reactions that are not necessarily the reaction that we want to have? And I think it is just so fascinating how little we actually know about the body and the relationship between the body and the mind, or perhaps how little I know and how much our guests are going to tell us. Let us get into it.

Meyer

We will be speaking today to two experts on how we change behavior. Seth Godin is probably the best-known marketer on the planet, and we want to ask him how he attempts to change people’s minds.

Seth Godin

Hey, it is Seth Godin. I am an author, a blogger and an entrepreneur. I have written 19 bestsellers, and I run a series of workshops that teach people how to do work that matters.

Meyer

And we will speak with EYQ Global Fellow neuroscientist Tali Sharot, a professor at MIT and University College London. Tali uses MRI machines to actually watch the mind changing.

Tali Sharot

I am Tali Sharot. I am a professor of cognitive neuroscience and the author of a few books, including the latest, The Influential Mind.

Meyer

Seth and Tali, I want to thank you both for joining us. And in this episode, I would like to hear from each of your perspectives, and we will end with a lightning round of questions. Let us start with you, Tali. Your recent book, The Influential Mind, is subtitled What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others. So, what does the brain reveal? It is a fascinating premise.

Sharot

So, what the brain reveals is the factors that are quite useful in changing people’s minds and behaviors, and some factors that are not so useful, and yet, we tend to try to use them, not successfully.

Meyer

What are the unsuccessful factors?

Sharot

So, unsuccessful factors — I think there is two that are ones that people tend to kind of fall onto. So, one is trying to tell people they are wrong. And usually, that is always a bad idea.

Meyer

That has always worked for me.

Sharot

Start with “You are wrong.” And then trying to bring all the facts and figures to show that I am wrong and you are right. So, that is kind of a common strategy that tends to not work. The other one is similar, but it is a tendency to try to control others, right? To tell people what to do and how to do it. And the response to that is usually trying to push people away, or anxiety. That is another response to having other people try to control you.

Meyer

So, what are the factors that do work, that do influence others?

Sharot

Some of the key factors that I talk about — first of all, trying to start with common ground. So, this is kind of the opposite of going and saying, you are wrong; I am right, but to start with finding, okay, what it is that we do have in common in terms of our beliefs and our motivation. And given that we are all humans, surprisingly, we have a lot in common that we can start off with.

And so, what we find is — and this comes from a lot of research. But one study that we have done is we have brought people to the lab, and we asked them to make decisions together. In this case, it is about assessing real estate. And while they were doing that, we scanned their brains with two MRI scanners. And we found that when two people agreed, each person’s brain showed that it was really encoding the information coming from the agreeing partner. And people became more confident in their opinion when they agreed with one another, which makes sense.

But when people disagreed, metaphorically, it looked like the brain was kind of shutting down and was not actually encoding the information coming from the disagreeing person. And people’s confidence in their own belief didn’t change much. There was a small reduction, but not a significant one.

Meyer

So, you are kind of proving with brain scanning that you really cannot hear it when someone’s disagreeing with you.

Sharot

Right, right. But that also has a positive aspect to it, because it means, okay, well, if you are agreeing with me, I am really taking in the information that you are telling me.

Meyer

You founded a lab — you mentioned your lab — called the Affective Brain Lab. And I am wondering — behavioral economics has been gaining currency for 20 years or so. How does adding studying the brain make this a more effective science or branch of research?

Sharot

Well, first of all, even if you are studying behavioral economics, and only you are studying behavior, you are still studying the brain. So, the behavior is the product of the brain, right? For example, one of the main findings in the lab in recent years was that people take in information that suggests positive outcomes in the future more so than negative outcomes.

Meyer

So, you work a lot with executives and corporations, and we are probably both familiar with the reflex that companies have to say when they want something to change, they want to change an incentive system. They want to change the — what you get a bonus for if you are a salesperson. They want to change your KPIs if you are a manager. Does the research that you do suggest better strategies?

Sharot

Absolutely, yes. So, I definitely agree. I often think that changing the incentive structure is the best way to changing behavior. There are other strategies as well. The question is, how do you do that, right? Because there is a lot of ways to change your incentive structure. And one thing that — again, this comes from neuroscience. One thing that neuroscience shows you is that it is at least in some ways, if you want people to change, to make an action, to commit an action, to do something, in fact, promising them rewards is a better strategy than threatening them with a punishment.

And the opposite is true. So, if you want someone not to commit an action, so not to share privileged information, for example, in fact, the threat of a punishment could work better. It is something called the approach avoidance principle. And so, the idea is that to get the good things in life, whether it is chocolate cake, promotion, love, we usually need to do something. If I am thirsty, I usually need to move my hand and get the water, right? It is not 100% of the time, but most of the cases, if you want something, if you want a reward, you need to have an action. And so, our brain has evolved in that kind of universe where an action is related to a reward.

But actually, this changes under stress. So, this is something I did not tell you about. You stress people out, this goes away. So, under stress, if the information is worse than expected, you are much more likely to encode it than if you are in a non-stressed — in a relaxed atmosphere.

Meyer

So, maybe I am being simplistic, but what I took away from you, from what you just said, is when you are under stress, and what you need is a new way of thinking about the situation, you are unlikely to get it, because you are more frozen than when you are in an open environment where you think — you are more playful. So, sometimes it occurs that you really need a creative solution to a stressful problem.

Sharot

Right.

Meyer

Any prescription for making that happen?

Sharot

So, there are also studies that show that a certain level of stress could be helpful. So, it is not — again, it is — the thing about psychology, it is not like physics. We do not have gravity, right? There is no one rule that is always true.

Meyer

Okay. Seth, thanks so much for joining us. It is a pleasure to have you.

Godin

Oh, Chris, we have known each other a long time, so it is a pleasure.

Meyer

How many people read your blog?

Godin

Well, there are a million people who subscribe to it. I do not know how many of them actually read it.

Meyer

All right. How long have you been doing it?

Godin

I have not missed a day in way more than 10 years. There are 7,400 posts so far.

Meyer

So, that is a nontrivial amount of work. Why do you do it?

Godin

Oh, I would do it even if no one read it. The idea that when you go to bed at night, you are telling yourself that tomorrow, you have to say something that you want to put your name on, make a prediction, make an assertion, do something generous. I have never run an ad, never sold a link. That would be silly. That is not what it is for. It is just a chance to contribute to a culture — not the culture, but a group of people who want to hear from you. What could be better than that?

Meyer

So, our subject today is influence. And you get feedback that your blog opens doors for people, helps them do different things. How do you design it so it will be influential?

Godin

Oh, what a juicy question. Okay. Here is how it began and then how it got better. I had my first email address in 1976, and I started one of the first Internet companies in 1989 or 1990, before the World Wide Web. And so, I started an email newsletter, where once a week, I would send an email to people about what I was doing, what I was discovering, who I was seeing. Then I decided that I wanted to be a columnist. So, I started writing a column, and I was not trying to persuade the reader that I was right. I was trying to get the reader to agree with me that I was right so they could tell other people that they were right all along. And that habit of writing in a way that gives the reader influence has been ingrained in my writing ever since.

Meyer

Huh. You do not do research, so how do you know you are right?

Godin

Oh, that is the beauty of not doing research, is that I have never pretended to be right. I have never once said someone should do something I said because I proved I am right. My posture is, I am going to make an assertion. If it feels like it is worth you following that up and seeing how it works for you, go for it. That is what I do. I make assertions, and I tell stories and bring anecdotes to the floor so that people can find the courage to act on those assertions if they feel right to them.

Meyer

So, I am going to turn to tribes, which has been a theme of yours in the book and something you talk about a lot. And as background, I’ll read a quote from you. “The Internet was supposed to homogenize everyone by connecting us all, and instead what it is allowed is silos of interest. And it turns out, it is tribes, not money, not factories, that can change our world.” So, are you just writing for your own tribe, and to enlarge it and make it more influential?

Godin

Well, first, let us be clear. I wrote that more than, what, 10 years ago?

Meyer

Yes.

Godin

And I was right. Right, right, right! Unfortunately. But true, that the divisions have gotten significantly more dramatic than when I wrote that. I do not have a tribe. There is a tribe of people, many — several tribes that have things in common, and sometimes, they let me narrate for them. But they are not mine. I do not get to tell them what to do. And a lot of people who would seek to lead confuse the idea of their tribe and a tribe or the tribes. So, that is the first thing I would say.

But the second thing is that what we teach in the marketing seminars is this idea of practical empathy. And practical empathy says, I have a story I would like to tell you. Are you willing to hear it? And if that story gets under someone’s skin, it might change what they know, or what they want, or what they believe. But we have to begin with this empathy.

Meyer

Seth talked about the idea of practical empathy, and Tali talked about the idea that people encode information you give them better if you start from establishing common ground. Do you guys think those are the same observation?

Godin

I do not think those are the same things, but I need to ask a question, which you do not need to answer yet, but I am fascinated by this. How is it possible that psychology is not physics? Is it not more likely that we just do not know enough? Because otherwise, we are asserting a homunculus and then just begging the question.

Sharot

I did not mean to say that we are not governed by rules.

Godin

Okay.

Sharot

But rather, there is not one rule that is true for every person in every context; while gravity is true for all human beings.

Godin

Perfect. Back to your question about common ground.

Meyer

Yes.

Godin

The way I see common ground is there are certain situations where a human being is more likely to engage with another human being if they see something of themselves in that interaction with the other person showing our humanity, or vulnerability or authenticity, but that is a special case.

Meyer

Reaction, Tali?

Sharot

In order for individuals to be more likely to listen to you, on average, it is helpful if you start from common ground. And there always is common ground, because we are human, so there always is that common ground. The question is, what are you emphasizing? So, if you start by emphasizing some kind of common ground — this could be anything, really, from beliefs, to motivations, to we are both parents, or something like that — then people are more likely to take it in.

Godin

And in a post three-channel universe, where people can control their attention much more clearly, it is more voluntary, and people are choosing to engage with you, which means that you do not get to market at people anymore. You can only market with them. And what that means is you have to be able to look at someone and say, I do not know what you know. I do not want what you want. I do not believe what you believe. And that is okay. Because if you cannot add the “and that is okay” part, then you have no place to build — let us call it common ground. And what we have seen is that traditionally, as marketers get more power and get bigger, they forget all of this, and instead, they simply insist that they are right, that they have the right answer, and you should do what they tell you to.

Sharot

So, I think we can start with our common ground, which is, I agree — I definitely agree with the last statement, that we have to not start with I am right, or you are wrong, or something like that. But I think we could do all of that because, in fact, we are much more similar than we are different. Humans are extremely similar. The difference between humans is minor to the similarities. I mean all brains are pretty much constructed in the same way. We say they have the same architecture. You know, the large basic motivations are the same. We are all built to survive, and to get rewards, and avoid harm, and to seek love, and all of that.

And in a most basic way, we know that, because we are humans ourselves, and we have this amazing ability not only to draw on our own experience and motivations and beliefs, but also to be able to think about what other people are thinking, right? We have theory of mind.

Godin

Yes. I do not — I cannot disagree with anything you said. I am mostly talking here about strategy and tactics for causing influence to lead to the outcomes we seek.

Sharot

But what you are doing is trying to convince someone else. So, the first step to do that, of course, is to understand their mind and their motivations. And the next point that I make is that many times, you can find motivations that are in common.

Meyer

Seth, it sounds like it is hard to get people to switch tribes, in your terms.

Godin

Oh, I think the only people who get people to switch tribes are the people themselves and the immediate circle around them, and that culture change is a horizontal thing, not a vertical thing. And that was less true when we could buy enormous amounts of attention, but it has always been the case. And so, one of the things that we need to think about as influencers is, we cannot do the easy convenient thing of go on one talk show and announce that we are done. We cannot publish a paper proving our point and announce that we are done.

Meyer

I think each of you said in our earlier conversations that there is a shift away from trying to prove people wrong and use facts to change people’s minds, and toward creating an experience for people of understanding something that is a positive experience that they will embrace. And that could be because of the environment in which it happens, because of when you catch them. It could be how you present what you have to say. Is that a fair thing to take away from each of you?

Sharot

So, I think what I was saying is that in general, data and facts alone are not very helpful in influencing people. Now, it does not mean that we do not need these data. We need the data to find the truth, but they are not enough in convincing people of the truth, especially, again, in cases when people already have a different opinion, right? And it makes sense, because if you think about it, we have evolved in small communities, where it used to be the case that the only way that we could learn is by observing other people, learning about their life stories. You know, they did this, and this is what happened to them. And from these individual stories is how we have learned.

So, social learning is how we learn, and that is what we are used to. These stories are super powerful, right? These kind of portraits of individuals are also more emotional. And emotion has a huge effect on us. It alters our memory, it alters our attention, and therefore, it is a tool for influence.

Godin

Yes. I do not think that there is a shift as much as there is a recognition by some.

Godin

And I also want to say that in many ways, I am not an optimist about the power that more and more entities have to put ideas with influence into our culture without taking responsibility for them. And my hope is that over time, we create enough of a broad culture where we can stand up and say, no, that is not okay. And we see little glimmers of that, but not enough of it. It is not okay to expose our kids to this. It is not okay to tear apart our community. It is not okay, just because you want to spread a lie and because you can spread a lie, for you to do so. And culture has always been about what is okay. And when we are in a tribe of Dunbar’s number, a group of 150 people, it is really quite clear to see how that is done. It is not clear to me how the global village is going to figure it out.

Sharot

I agree. I have to say, we kind of talked before about incentive structure. I think the number one problem is there is not an incentive structure yet when it comes to things like social media, right? Or the incentive — oh, well, there is an incentive structure, but it is not actually promoting things like truth and responsibility and things like that. And I do think that the change would be in changing the incentive structure. And it is not something that it is impossible to do, I do not think.

Meyer

All right. We will close with a lightning round. Questions, 20-second answers max to each one. First is, how can organizational leaders better use what is understood about how to influence people in motivating their organizations?

Sharot

Well, I think it is knowledge. I mean, that is the first step, right? Just knowing about the science, knowing about how things work. Once you have the knowledge, then you could probably figure out how to use your knowledge for your specific situation. So, your specific industry, company, and so on.

Meyer

Okay. Seth.

Godin

Get out from behind your desk, do it in real life, and see what works.

Meyer

Question number two. How can marketers use this knowledge to improve customers’ experience?

Godin

Stop being megalomaniacal, narcissistic, short-term profit-seekers, and instead, find the humility to figure out what will make people better, happier and more of what they want.

Meyer

Tali.

Sharot

I think the answer is the same. Again, it is the knowledge.

Godin

Well, I am sort of in awe about someone who can go as deep into the science that you are going. And once you figure out the physics of psychology, I really hope you will send me the first draft.

Sharot

Unfortunately, we are both going be in the grave.

Meyer

All right. Thanks to both of you. This was really fun.

Godin

It is a pleasure.

Sharot

Thank you.

Abdel-Magied

I suppose what I am thinking about right now is actually when the last time was that I changed my mind about anything.

Meyer

Uh-huh.

Abdel-Magied

Yes. Or the last time I was able to convince anyone else to change their mind, and what the process was that we went through. We seem to equalize all types of disagreement. Not all disagreements are the same. And so, somebody disagreeing with my right to take up space or my right to exist is not quite the same as what font we should use for our report. But we seem to bring the same level of outrage and dig our heels in attitude to both sort of discussion in the world at the moment.

Meyer

Well, it opens us up to saying, let us think together why we disagree and what we might learn from that and from each other. And if we exhibit both goodwill and practical empathy, maybe we can get to a shared conclusion of some sort. And I think that is consistent with Tali’s finding that without starting with common ground, it is hopeless to try to deal with the real differences.

Abdel-Magied

That is interesting. Does that mean we also hold the possibility of changing our own minds?

Meyer

Well, it is a possibility. I think so.

Abdel-Magied

I mean, I think that is really powerful.

Meyer

Indeed. What else struck you about what we heard?

Abdel-Magied

One thing I noticed was that sometimes we forget that the assumptions we make about how the world works is not the same for everyone else. I think Tali put that really well. Something like, not every rule works for everybody all the time, but gravity works for us always. That was quite profound.

Meyer

And how great, given what we have just said, that they ended acknowledging that they disagree about this. Seth thinks we will discover the physics of psychology, and Tali does not. Seth ended talking about his respect for Tali’s science. But I think we should note, they are both empiricists. Seth said, get out in the real world and see what works. Tali does the opposite, in one sense — puts subjects in an MRI machine and sees what happens. But that is a different part of the real world. And where this will take us, what’s after what’s next here, will be a convergence of what she called a theory of mind, so that individuals with less experience and perhaps less natural empathy can get better at influencing people, rather than polarizing them.

Abdel-Magied

Well, I am a little skeptical, because some of this stuff is uncomfortable. And I think discomfort is something that people shy away from. If we genuinely, genuinely want to practice practical empathy and finding common ground, it is also about understanding other people’s minds and psyches, but also our own in order to be as deliberate as possible as we go through that world. So, maybe I am skeptical, but also hopeful.

Meyer

Well, I think the potential here, and why we wanted to listen to Seth and Tali together, is that a new set of tools is becoming available to enable us to see the kind of thing Tali told us — what tools motivate? Which ones deter? How does stress affect behavior in both cases, for example? These might not make psychology as predictive as physics for a while, but could help people learn to perform better in terms of influencing others. And they could also help us understand our own barriers and behaviors.

Abdel-Magied

It is certainly timely to be thinking about this, when social media has turned out to be quite the laboratory to observe people’s attempts to influence others and the responses they get.

Meyer

Absolutely. As we always do, we want to see what questions our conversation suggests for our C-suite listeners, and I would offer the following. First, if I am a senior leader, my job is to influence people — customers, employees, regulators, the public. And listening to our guests, I would ask, do I know enough about the emerging sciences of behavior? Because following that advancement is going to help me expand my influence.

Second, could insights into behavior and decision-making be built into what I and my organization do internally and externally? What is in my customer service script, or what are the norms of our organization for handling conflict? Are common ground and practical empathy — could that be part of the value system within my organization? Do we evaluate our leaders for their abilities to influence others? And is it now possible to train for these skills in ways that you could not do before?

Abdel-Magied

Two very important questions. What is your last question?

Meyer

Well, it leaves us with the better question: How can we make common ground the foundation for real change?

Today, we spoke about influencing others, and the brain and behavior, looking internally. Now we will be turning our attention externally to another important topic for the executive. Next episode, we will be talking about the influence of China. We talk to Parag Khanna, a global strategy investor and a writer in Singapore; and blockchain investor Jennifer Zhu Scott, based in Hong Kong.

Abdel-Magied

And that concludes today’s episode of The Better Question. For more on this subject, visit ey.com.

If you would like to share your better question with us, leave a review.

I am Yassmin Abdel-Magied. The better the question, the better the answer, the better the world works. Until next time.

Disclaimer: The views of third parties set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the time they were made.