Jun 19, 2018

Tells for Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance (CD) is "the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values." Cartoonist turned political commentator Scott Adams has taken our understanding of this phenomenon further by identifying certain "tells" (i.e. signs) for when a person is in CD. The point is that when a person is experiencing this form of mind strain, he or she will use predictably irrational methods to relieve it.

The following is my curated list of CD tells. Several originate with Adams, who published his own list in 2015. Many have to do with President Donald Trump as his election and presidency have been a huge CD trigger for many.

{Check back for updates}

The Absurd Absolute (Adams). A type of "straw man" attack, this counter takes your argument and restates it as an absolute, often using words such as "always" or "never," so that it is easier to argue against. Per Adams, this tell often includes sarcasm and starts with the word "so." Example: You make an argument in favor of one of President Trump's decisions. They respond, "So what you're saying is Trump is always right."

The Ad Hominem. This one is actually a logical fallacy, but it is also sure-fire sign of CD. You articulate a rational point, and they respond by attacking you or the person you are defending. Example: You cite President Trump's three greatest, measurable achievements. They respond, "He has also achieved being the most racist a-hole ever to occupy the White House."

Juvenile Reversion. When kids and teens are losing an argument, they fight back with name-calling, curse words and low-brow humor. When adults experience CD, they sometimes revert to this behavior. Example: In response to President Trump's historic summit with Kim Jung Un in Singapore, a friend and ardent Trump hater sent me a doctored video of Kim touching Trump's back to stick a crude drawing of a penis to his suit jacket.

The Laundry List (Adams). In the consumer-products world, we are often presented with what I call "Swiss Army products." These are products that do more than two or three things. No one thing is strong enough to interest consumers, but the belief is that the sum of the parts will yield a successful whole. A similar type of thinking is behind this tell. Because no one point is strong enough to counter the argument presented, the person strings together more than two or three things in the hopes it will yield a convincing whole.

Too Many Explanations (Adams). When people offer multiple, divergent theories to explain away something that challenges their worldview, they are likely experiencing CD. It's an attempt to use quantity (many possible answers) to relieve the mental stress of a lack of quality (none of them good). Example: CNN once put together 24 different theories (what Adams called a "cognitive dissonance cluster bomb") to explain how Donald Trump could possibly defeat Hillary Clinton to become president.

Word Salad (Adams). A jumble of partial thoughts that is hard to follow or understand. The person is usually trying to fit multiple, emotional points into a single paragraph, but CD has short-circuited their capacity for coherence.

The Zero-Calorie Reply. When people realize they have to concede your point, this can often trigger CD. They know they are smarter than you, yet somehow you have outmaneuvered them! To save their ego, they conclude that they must just be exasperated with you. The tell for this is a response completely lacking in any substance. It often involves emojis or other cutesy Internet shorthand. Example: "OK, Jordan. LOL."


Jun 15, 2018

Every Act of Perception is an Act of Creation

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

- Oliver Sacks

Jun 13, 2018

Why People Don't Value Their Time

“People didn't care about this rational math (of time vs money). People, in general, are terrible at valuing their time, perhaps because for most people monetary compensation for one's time is so detached from the event of spending one's time. Most time we spend isn't like deliberate practice, with immediate feedback.

“Wealthy people tend to receive a much more direct and immediate payoff for their time which is why they tend to be better about valuing it. This is why the first thing that most ultra-wealthy people I know do upon becoming ultra-wealthy is to hire a driver and start to fly private. For most normal people, the opportunity cost of their time is far more difficult to ascertain moment to moment.”

- Eugene Wei, "Invisible asymptotes"

Jun 12, 2018

Exploit Explained: Anchoring

{This post is part of the Archive of Human Exploits}

One of the most powerful tools in a negotiation is setting an anchor. One of the top things to look out for in a negotiation is someone else trying to set an anchor. As the name suggests, it can be extremely difficult to resist the holding power of this cognitive bias.

Writing in the Journal of Economic Psychology, three researchers from the UK Centre for Behavioural and Experimental Social Science explain:
"During decision making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. Once an anchor is set, other judgements are made by adjusting away from that anchor, and there is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor. 
"For example, the initial price offered for a used car sets the standard for the rest of the negotiations, so that prices lower than the initial price seem more reasonable even if they are still higher than what the car is really worth. 
"Studies have shown that anchoring is very difficult to avoid. For example, in one study students were given anchors that were obviously wrong. They were asked whether Mahatma Gandhi died before or after age 9, or before or after age 140. Clearly neither of these anchors are correct, but the two groups still guessed significantly differently (choosing an average age of 50 vs. an average age of 67)."
There are many techniques for countering the effects of this human exploit. When negotiating dollar amounts some say you should always go first to be sure you set the anchor and set it high. Others counsel the opposite:
"The fact is high anchors make deals go away. They kill deals you otherwise should have made ... 
"Many companies or people will try to get a price out of you early when they are shopping. Most likely, if they are pushing you for a quick price up front, you are in fact the fool in the game. They only want to use your number to drive down the price with the company they are going with anyway – the favorite.  So don’t do it ...
"The seasoned players want to get as much information out of you as possible before they set their ranges. They figure whatever number you throw, it’s only an opening offer and they’ll move you off of it anyway. They see your number as more information, and they crave information."
The above advice comes from The Black Swan Group, a consultancy founded by the guy who wrote the best book on negotiation I've ever read. I believe it's spot on.

In my experience, people try to set anchors all the time, whether consciously or unconsciously. My defense is to do my homework and ignore their anchors. Knowing the fair price going in is the best way to avoid drifting toward someone else's price.

Recently, when someone tries to set an extreme anchor, I have also been countering with an opposite extreme. That technique hasn't always resulted in the desired outcome (e.g. my desired price), but it does immediately clear out the BS so we can get down to getting serious. My philosophy is that if I'm not going to get to a reasonable place, I'd rather find that out quickly. Extreme counter-anchors tend to have that effect. Besides, if the person is haggling, you immediately draw them toward your anchor and away from their own.

The Best Book on Negotiation

My new favorite book is Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. I've been recommending it to everyone and have bought it for a few people as well. It's that good.

Below are my notes and highlights, but they don't even begin to do the book justice. You really can't appreciate Voss's genius without all of the great stories he tells — especially the ones from his days as an FBI hostage negotiator. The stories bring all of his insights to life and make for a very enjoyable and entertaining read. Get the book here on Amazon.


“The secret to gaining the upper hand in a negotiation is giving the other side the illusion of control.” - Chris Voss

Label important emotions with these starting words:
  1. “It seems like ...”
  2. “It sounds like ...”
  3. “It looks like ...”
Avoid “I” statements and use the neutral phrasing above instead.

Use softening words & phrases to turn possible confrontations into collaborations/joint problem-solving:
  • “Perhaps”
  • “Maybe”
  • “I think”
  • “It seems”
Defuse confrontation in 4 simple steps:
  1. Use the late-night FM DJ voice
  2. Start with “I’m sorry ...”
  3. Mirror. Repeat the last 3 words or critical 1-3 words of what was said.
  4. Stay silent for at least 4 seconds to let the mirror work its magic.
  5. Repeat
Slow. It. Down. Going too fast is one of the most common negotiating mistakes.

Put a smile on your face. Positivity works!

“He who has learned to disagree without being disagreeable has discovered the most valuable secret of negotiation.” - Robert Easterbrook, former Washington Post editor

Don’t feel their pain: Label it. Labeling is a way of validating someone’s emotion by acknowledging it. Give their emotion a name to show you identify with how they feel.

Do an “accusation audit.” List the worst thing your counterpart could say about you
and say them before the other person can.

Employ tactical empathy. Imagine yourself in your counterpart’s situation. You don’t have to agree with them or give them a hug. Empathy is not sympathy.

Break the habit of attempting to get people to say “yes.” The word makes people defensive. 

There are three types of “yes”:
  1. Counterfeit (designed to make you go away)
  2. Confirmation (innocent, reflexive, black & white)
  3. Commitment (the real deal, leads to action)
Getting to “no” is more important in a negotiation.

“No” is not the end of the conversation but the beginning. Every “no” gets you closer to a real “yes.”

A “no” can have several meanings:
  • “Wait”
  • “I’m not comfortable with that”
  • “I am not yet ready to agree”
  • “You are making me feel uncomfortable”
  • “I do not understand”
  • “I don’t think I can afford it”
  • “I want something else”
  • “I need more information”
  • “I want to talk it over with someone else”
“No” makes the speaker feel safe, secure and in control, so trigger it.

Ask solution-based questions to counter a “no.”
  • “What about this doesn’t work for you?”
  • “What would you need to make it work?”
  • “It seems like there’s something here that bothers you.”
What if they won’t say “no”? Then you intentionally mislabel to force it.

e.g. “It seems like you no longer want this project to succeed.”

How can you say “no” in a non-confrontational way and get them to negotiate against themselves? Use the multi-step no:
  1. “How am I supposed to do that?”
  2. “Your offer is very generous. I’m sorry, that just doesn’t work for me.”
  3. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I just can’t do that.”
  4. “I’m sorry, no.”
  5. “No.” (polite, downward inflection)
Strive for “that’s right” instead of “yes.” Use a summary/paraphrase to trigger it.

When you get a “yes,” use the Rule of Three. Make them say it three times in different ways to ensure it isn’t counterfeit.

“Yes” is nothing with “how.”

Getting ignored? Use the phrase: “Have you given up on this project?”

Strive to create “unconditional positive regard.”

The negotiating F bomb is “FAIR.” It is a very powerful word used three different ways.

Use #1: “We just want what’s fair.”
Counter: “OK, I apologize. Let’s stop and go back to where you think I started treating you unfairly, and we’ll fix it.”

Use #2: “We’ve given you a fair offer.”
Counter: (mirror) “Fair? (pause) It seems like you’re ready to provide the data to support that.”

Use #3: To defuse the F bomb in advance.
Example: “I want you to feel like you’re being treated fairly at all times. Let me know if at any time you feel I am treating you unfairly.”

Deadline pressure and fear of loss are powerful negotiating tools.

You can bend reality by anchoring a starting point. 

Use a range to soften an extreme anchor, but be sure to make the lower bound more than you want. (People often pick the lower bound when given a range in a negoitiation.)

To ease a conversation in the direction you want, use calibrated questions. They make your counterpart feel in charge while it’s you framing the conversation.

Calibrated questions:
  • Avoid close-ended question words such as “can,” “is,” “are,” “do” and “does” that can obe answered with a yes/no
  • Start with one of the journalists’ 5 Ws, which form open-ended questions that inspire thinking
  • Best of these is “what” or “how”
  • “Who,” “when” and “where” invite unthinking factual replies
  • Be careful with “why” as it is always an accusation, in any language
A good use of “why” — when the defensiveness it creates supports the change you want them to see

e.g. “Why would your company ever change from your long-standing vendor and choose our company?” (in a respectful, polite tone)

Some useful calibrated questions:
  • “What is the biggest challenge you face?”
  • “What about this is important to you?”
  • “How can I help make this better for us?”
  • “How would you like me to proceed?”
  • “What is it that brought us into this situation?”
  • “How can we solve this problem?”
  • “What’s the objective? What are we trying to accomplish here?”
And the mother of all calibrated questions: “How am I supposed to do that?

Be aware of behind-the-scenes deal killers, people you are not negotiating with who, nevertheless, have the ability to kill your deal.

Ask calibrated questions to reveal these hidden deal killers:
  • “How does this affect everybody else?”
  • “How on board is the rest of your team?”
  • “How do we make sure we deliver the right material to the right people?”
  • “How do we ensure the managers of those we’re training are fully on board?”
Read people using the 7-38-55 Rule:
  • 7% is what people say
  • 38% is their tone of voice
  • 55% is their body language
Pay special attention during unguarded moments: before & after formal meetings or during breaks, at events, etc.

“Ten minutes of face time often reveals more than days of research.” - Chris Voss

A person’s use of pronouns is telling:
  • “I,” “me,” and “my” means the real power to decide probably lies elsewhere.
  • “We,” “they,” and “them” means it’s more likely you’re dealing directly with a savvy decision maker keeping his options open.
Black Swans are the hidden motivators in a negotiation. They are “unknown unknowns.” Voss believes there are as many as three of them in any negotiation.

“Finding and acting on Black Swans .... takes negotiation from being a one-dimensional move-countermove game of checkers to a three-dimensional game that’s more emotional, adaptive, intuitive — and truly effective.” - Chris Voss

Negotiation is more like walking on a tightrope than competing against an opponent. Focusing so much on the end objective will only distract you from the next step, and that can cause you to fall off the rope. Concentrate on the next step because the rope will lead you to the end as long as all the steps are completed

Leverage is about perception, not reality. It is an essentially emotional concept. It can be manufactured where it doesn’t exist. 

It doesn’t matter what leverage actually exists, what matters is the leverage they think you have.

“Think of leverage as as a fluid that sloshes between the parties. As a negotiator you should always be aware of which side, at any given moment, feels they have the most to lose if negotiations collapse.” - Chris Voss

The Ackerman method is an offer-counteroffer model that is the most effective way to haggle:
  1. Set your target price (your goal).
  2. Set your first offer at 65 percent of your target.
  3. Calculate three raises of decreasing increments (to 85, 95, and 100 percent).
  4. Use lots of empathy and different ways of saying “No” to get the other side to counter before you increase your offer.
  5. When calculating the final amount, use precise, non-round numbers like, say, $37,893 rather than $38,000. It gives the number credibility and weight. 
  6. On your final number, throw in a nonmonetary item (that they probably don’t want) to show you’re at your limit.
Have the courage to keep negotiating. Don’t accept a wimp-win deal where you jump a counterpart’s first concession.

There are three types of leverage:
  1. Positive
  2. Negative
  3. Normative
Positive leverage is your ability to give your counterpart what he wants. Whenever the other side says, “I want ...” you have positive leverage.

Negative leverage is the ability to hurt your counterpart. It is based on threats. It gets people’s attention because of the psychology of loss aversion.

Normative leverage is using your counterpart’s norms (rules of behavior, moral standards) to bring them around. If you can show inconsistencies between their beliefs and their actions, you have leverage. No one likes to look like a hypocrite.

This includes working to understand the other side’s religion, meant literally (e.g. Jewish) or figuratively (their worldview).

Review everything you hear from your counterpart. You will not hear everything the first time, so double-check. Compare notes. Use “backup listeners” whose only job is to hear things you miss.

Is your counterpart acting crazy? Here are three possible reasons why:
  1. He’s ill-informed. When people have bad information, they make bad choices. Garbage in, garbage out.
  2. He’s constrained. He may lack the power to close the deal.
  3. He has other interests. The old “hidden agenda.”
Do a preparatory exercise before entering a negotiation where you list the primary tools you anticipate using, such as the labels, calibrated questions, etc.

“When the pressure is on, you don’t rise to the occasion. You fall to your highest level of preparation.” - Chris Voss