Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Time to Change our Relation to Vendors? Johnny B's Call to Arms

Over at Johnny B: Renaissance Man, John Beatty wrote a terrific call to arms (click on the title to this post to go read it in full). After reviewing the dismal recent events in West's relations with librarians (AALL sponsorship refused; pulling printers from Puerto Rican law schools and non-ABA accredited law schools; and finally the ad stating that knowing your librarian's first name was proof that you were spending too much time in the library), John recalls for his readers that West is no longer a family-owned business, but part of a multi-national mega-corporation. The guiding rule is stock price and profit for these large businesses now, and librarians need to get used to the idea that their vendors and publishers are no longer the small, closely held, family-owned houses they once were.

John considers what the relation should be between a professional and vendors, where the professional will be recommending the products, comparing, teaching and consulting about which would be the most cost-effective product. His conclusion is that carrying mugs, bags, pens and other paraphernalia with the logos of vendors undercuts the professional's independence. He recalls his personal revulsion at librarians' gleeful greed for trinkets in exhibit halls, both at ALA and AALL. Now John has cleaned out his office, throwing out or giving away all the trinkets, mugs, etc. with vendor markings. When he teaches this year, his coffee cup will be blank or have a sports team logo.

All this reminded me of a long-ago article from the Boston Globe about the science of influence. (click here to read the entire original OOTJ post). The Globe article was about a lobby group, AIPAC, for Israel that pays for journalists and politicians of any kind to travel and tour Israel. The woman who wrote had taken one of these trips and then wrote about her experience, including a consideration of whether she thought it had influenced her opinions about Israel. She said there was no hard sell, just the trip itself, which included flying business class, a seven day trip including a tour of the desert and the Old City of Jerusalem with a renowned archeologist, laying on the beach in Tel Aviv, and many more wonderful experiences. They were special experiences the average tourist would not have access to -- visits with government officials, intimate conversations with Israeli families. When she returned home, she really wanted to evaluate how much the trip affected her opinions about Israel.

When I returned to Boston, I had a new store of knowledge and a profound fascination with the Middle East. What else had I brought home?

In January 2003, Justice Antonin Scalia went on a duck-hunting trip to Louisiana with Vice President Dick Cheney, a litigant in a case before the US Supreme Court. In the ensuing uproar, Scalia was indignant. "I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned," he insisted.

Not by him, anyway. Because one of the things psychologists tell us about persuasion is that we have a very hard time knowing if it's happened to us.

I was well aware that I had heard only one side of the story on my trip. So how could I be susceptible to persuasion? But I also knew that any lobbying group that drops thousands of dollars on someone expects to get something in return.

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.

Armed with this new appreciation for the subtleties of influence, I've found myself picking over the question: how much has my opinion on Israel been moved?

It's not hard for me to acknowledge that I'm much more sympathetic to the predicament of Israel than I was before I saw the place so extensively with my own eyes. Traveling the countryside has given me a much clearer picture of its precarious state, with a mere 9 miles separating the West Bank from Tel Aviv - less than from Boston to Concord, and easy distance for rockets. You can certainly see why Israel wouldn't give up the West Bank until it has a partner it can trust. Its existence - and the lives of the people we met - are at risk.

Before the junket, I would have described myself as admiring of Israel but increasingly disturbed by its human rights violations.

Now I would say I find myself aligned with a growing group of former Israeli leftists, those who once believed a peaceful solution was imminent but after the debacle of Gaza have, with heavy hearts, lost their bearings and moved toward the center.

Is this a seismic shift? No. But I also have no way of knowing where I would stand had I paid for the trip with my own money, organized my own interviews, and gotten equal access to the Palestinian point of view. (snip)

Was I swayed by AIPAC? It is hard for me to say. I don't think so. Of course I don't.
The bias blind spot is the most disturbing part of this article for me. As a law librarian, I have always liked to think that I could accept mugs and pens from vendors and maintain some objectivity; still be able to recommend the best product for cost-effective research regardless of whose mug or pen I happen to have in my hand. But Johnny B makes a separate point -- the appearance of objectivity to our students, our faculty, our attorneys, clients, patrons of all types, is compromised when we have these items in our offices. I had not really considered this before, though I have been joshed by colleagues before in meetings about a mug or pen.

Clearly, the vendors must think these items are worth something to them -- why else are they spending money to put their names on items to hand out? Why else are they hosting parties, handing out gimmes at the exhibit hall? Actually -- gimmes at the Exhibit Hall: as a member of the various SISes, that may be a different issue -- we buy give-aways ourselves, and put out candy to draw people to our tables so we can talk to them and get our message out. The exhibit hall tchotchkes may be a different thing, to some extent. We certainly see them used as tools to get librarians to sit through product announcements and training sessions, where you have to get multiple boxes or cards checked to get a big prize or series of prizes. But it's a little disturbing to be moved along like Pavlov's dogs, and then handed a branded prize so we can advertise the vendor as if we were a Nascar racer.

1 comment:

Marie S. Newman said...

Great post, Betsy. Very thought provoking. You're right about the appearance of objectivity--it's particularly important when we are standing up in front of a class of students not to be seen as favoring one vendor over another. And Johnny B is right--it's time for AALL to give Thomson the heave ho from the Exhibit Hall. And I think we can do without the Thomson party. Personally, I haven't been in years and wouldn't miss it. And I no longer collect baubles from the vendors because I am unwilling to schlep them home.