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A science-based guide offers tips for exploiting and overcoming faulty decision-making

The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others

Tali Sharot
Henry Holt
2017
255 pp.
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Humans have put men on the moon. We have split the atom. We can predict tides, eclipses, and even asteroid flybys to the minute. None of this would be possible without a characteristically human form of objective, rational thinking. With facts in hand, we can use reasoning to arrive at new knowledge and make good decisions. Yet, in everyday life, from workplace talk to domestic decision-making to political discourse, people dispense with all of that: We show poor logical skills, we overlook or willfully ignore established facts, we yield to biases and gut feelings, and in many ways, we “deny to the grave” (1).

So if humans are so smart, why are we so dumb? One answer makes reference to a model of human thinking in which two systems coexist: One system delivers intuitions, fast, while a second system is slow and more unwieldy but can be trusted for deliberate, conscious, calculated thought (2). In The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot explores the tension in this relationship, creating a picture in which modern logic is compromised by a much older, biased, heuristic system. This compromise makes us susceptible to poor decision-making.

When the “old” system prevails—which is a lot of the time—it can be like our persistent hunger for once-rare sugars and fats: What was evolutionarily sensible now becomes maladaptive. Seen this way, our biased intuitions are a kind of junk cognition, in need of conscious correction. As Sharot puts it, “the human brain has evolved for greatness but has preserved countless biases.”

Despite its title, the book is not about the mind that is influential but rather the mind that can be influenced. Insofar as the book is an instruction manual to the mind’s foibles, it is two guides at once, offering tips on how to influence other people by exploiting their junk instincts and advice for overcoming one’s own junk instincts through vigilance and correction, so as to avoid being played by others.

Sharot wants to reveal “the systematic mistakes we make when we attempt to change minds,” as well as showing what makes us succeed when we do. Influence, she says, depends not only on the message or the messenger. What matters most is “the mental state of the receiver.”

Sharot’s emphasis on the role of the receiver in the success or failure of persuasion points to what this book is really about: communication. If our thinking were purely rational, then influencing others would be a simple matter of conveying facts, so that those we seek to affect may take the best course of action. But that is not how communication works. In humans, just as in other animals, to communicate with someone is to act upon them by playing on their senses and, in turn, on their cognitive habits of attention, interpretation, representation, and reasoning (3).

Sharot’s lucid and engaging work supports her thesis that “an attempt to change someone’s mind will be successful if it aligns with the core elements that govern how we think.” Her overview of these core elements comes under seven rubrics, treated in turn in the chapters of the book. To have a chance of influencing someone, she argues that you will do well to take into account the person’s prior beliefs, their emotional state, their incentives to change their beliefs or actions, their sense of agency over the options being presented, their interests and concerns, their transient state of mind (e.g., degree of stress), and their awareness of, and judgments of, the knowledge and actions of other people.

The Influential Mind is a fine contribution to an emerging project on the part of cognitive scientists to promote a kind of reflexive cognitive literacy around our intuitions and habits of reasoning (1, 4, 5). Seldom aware of our own cognitive biases, we are played like pianos, nowhere more mercilessly and effectively than by marketing and PR professionals.

Any contribution that gives ordinary people more agency is a welcome and important one, and Sharot’s treatment is particularly valuable for its balance between accessibility to the reader and solid grounding in scientific research. In today’s “posttruth” environment, her efforts to increase awareness of the pitfalls of human reasoning, and how to overcome them, are an indispensable contribution from the coalface of cognitive scientific research.

References

  1. S. E. Gorman, J. M. Gorman. Denying to the Grave (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2017)

  2. D. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin, London, 2010)

  3. J. R. Krebs, R. Dawkins, in Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach, J. R. Krebs, N. B. Davies, Eds. (Blackwell, London, ed. 2, 1984), pp. 380–405.

  4. G. Gigerenzer, Gut Feelings: Short Cuts to Better Decision Making (Penguin, London, 2007).

  5. H. Mercier, D. Sperber, The Enigma of Reason (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2017)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.