Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Science of Influence

Click on the title to this post to read a lengthy and fascinating article from the Ideas Section of today’s Boston Globe, “I was lobbied by the Israel lobby,” by Elaine McArdle. The article focuses on the author’s experience on an all-expenses paid trip to Israel sponsored for journalists by AIPAC, the main lobby for Israel in the U.S.

I focus on just one part of this article, which is worth reading for itself. Near the end of the article, McArdle talks to various professors who study the effects of nonconscious influence. This should be a big wake-up call to all professionals, including law librarians, who routinely receive gifts, parties, trips or even donations and scholarships from vendors. Here are some important facts:

I called John A. Bargh, a Yale psychology professor who studies nonconscious influences on behavior, and walked him through the details of my junket. Did he think I was swayed by the experience? "Of course you are," he said. "You'd almost have to be. And you can't know it."

A key tool in the subtle art of persuasion, he said, is reciprocity: offer someone a pleasant experience or gift and they feel an almost irresistible obligation to return the favor. The norm of reciprocity cuts across every culture, and the value of the gift is irrelevant: a cup of coffee is as effective as an extravagant trip. Another tool is to provide friendship and human connection - it's inevitable that a bond will develop when you spend substantial time with someone, especially in a foreign place, where you depend on them.

In the case of the AIPAC junket, it was a one-two punch: an unforgettable and emotionally charged week with warm, likable people - generous hosts and tour guides whom I worried about after returning to the safety of life in Massachusetts.

Emily Pronin, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton who studies how bias works in the human mind, told me that she and others have found that although we are quick to spot bias in others, bias in ourselves operates almost entirely on a subconscious level. She calls it the "bias blind spot." Scalia's cozy weekend was innocent in his own eyes. Doctors who worry about the sway of pharmaceutical companies over their colleagues insist that their own medical judgment would never be affected. Journalists think they're too savvy to be hustled by lobbyists. We're all operating under a fundamental misperception about the soft sell: that we'll see it happening and avoid it.

"It's a perception of bias as conscious, evil, corrupt behavior," she told me. "As long as we think that's how it goes, we'll continue to say it doesn't affect us."

Since we're all deeply invested in our own sense of integrity - and being accused of bias is an affront - we are primed to deny it. Because bias is subconscious, Bargh said, when our opinion does change we'll convince ourselves that it's because objective reality has changed, or that we didn't have enough facts before.
McArdle finishes the article mulling over the effects her free trip to Israel may have had on her attitudes toward Israel. Not a seismic shift, she says, but certainly effects that she can see and measure. But the key learning is that the effects are unconscious. The person is totally unaware of any bias that is created. It’s important to understand that nobody feels compromised or biased, but everybody is. What does that say about our easy acceptance of mugs, candies, bags, and even trips and scholarships from large publishers and vendors? Not one of us believes that our decisions have been affected or that our professional judgement has been compromised. But the vendors clearly believe that the money they spend on these gifts are worthwhile. And, more impressive to me, the professors who study these things are completely in agreement.

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