Win Bigly: Book Review

Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter (2017), Scott Adams: the creator of Dilbert. In Rage Woodward explained that Jared Kushner claimed a number of written sources explain Trump. Among those was the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Another one was this Scott Adams book. The Trump/Dilbert guy/persuasion bait hooked me. There were some useful parts, but I was strangely disappointed. The book didn’t explain persuasion well and didn’t convince me Trump was a Master Persuader. Most of it was well written, often funny and sometimes convincing. Toward the end Adams seemed to be unhinged. When Clinton recommended an increase in the estate tax, he seemed to view it as a personal insult and robbing him personally—therefore, endorsing Trump (despite labeling himself as an ultra-liberal at the start of the book). Perhaps a technique in persuasion, but I thought he was violating his insistence of non-bias, falling for confirmation bias and exhibiting cognitive dissonance. Anyway, here are the main takeaways.

Adams predicted Trump would win in 2016 based on his skill as a persuader, largely based on being a trained hypnotist: a Master persuader with “weapons-grade persuasion skills. … Keep in mind that disapproving of Trump’s style and personality is a social requirement for people who long for a more civil world. Effectiveness is a separate issue from persuasion skill. … The common worldview, shared by most humans, is that there is one objective reality, and we humans can understand that reality through a rigorous application of facts and reason” (p. 2). He also claimed Trump used “high-end business strategy.”

[Political analyst Thomas Frank wrote What’s the Matter With Kansas in 2004, exploring conservative, anti-elite populism. A basic theme was why would people vote against their own best interests (like healthcare, infrastructure and assorted local public goods)? Following Adams’ logic, the answer is Master Persuasion.]

Adams introduced two psychology traits as critical: confirmation bias (viewing information as supporting one’s views) and cognitive dissonance (when evidence conflicts with your worldview; rationalizing actions or opinions inconsistent with contrary evidence). He occasionally used the psychological terms anchor (like starting with a big opening demand) and framing (setting the context). He uses “filter” for framing. High-ground maneuver, elevating debate to point of agreement. Linguistic kill shot: persuasive nickname or phrase: Trump giving opponents nicknames. “Tells”: signal on how good his position is.

According the Adams, Democrats claimed Trump was a budding Hitler and Adams “Hitler’s little helper.” He claimed Trump’s hyperbole as weapons-grade persuasion (“bringing a flamethrower to a stick fight”) that would moderate after the election [apparently, the idea of it getting worse was not a consideration; I thought Trump-as-Mussolini was a better fit anyway]. The idea of making an outrageous first demand is a negotiating tactic. A key point is facts and policy details are not needed for persuasion. Adams claimed Trump was heading in the right direction: “strong national security, prosperity, affordable health care, personal freedom” (p. 9). Why details and facts are not important mystifies me—Adams does claim someone like me has “an untrained eye.” [Journalist HL Mencken did say: “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”]

Adam’s claim seems spot on: “Before the Master Persuader was done with the election, he would also remake the Republican Party in his own image, eviscerate the mainstream media’s credibility, and leave the Democratic Party in ruins” (p. 17). He did mention Steve Jobs as another, like his “reality distortion field.”

Persuasion Tip 1: When you identify as part of a group, your opinions tend to be biased toward the group consensus.

[The basic ideas look a lot like propaganda to me. Many people claim to be “influencers” of various kinds. Adams did not explain how these may be related.]

Part 1: Why Facts are Overrated: The Most Important Perceptual Shift in History.

“Persuasion is all about the tools and techniques of changing people’s minds, with or without facts and reason” (p. 19). Persuasion tip 2: “Humans are hardwired to reciprocate favors. If you want someone’s cooperation in the future, do something for that person today” (p. 19). Intentional wrongness as a Trump persuasion play: exaggerate or make factual error; people notice and this makes an impact. Audacity as wrongness: Adams claimed 98% chance of Trump winning. Build a wall versus the complex analysis to control border crossings. [I, with the untrained eye, go nuts over “bumper-sticker-speak.”] Persuasion tip 4: “The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind. …” PT5: “An intentional error in the details with attract criticism. The attention will make your message rise in importance” (p. 22). Facts become weak persuasion; Trump ignored them; didn’t change them or apologize, a sign of weakness. It’s easier to remember things that violate expectations; ditto visual persuasion, emotion, repetition and simplicity. It takes real skill to intentionally ignore facts and logic.

Part 2: How to See Reality in a More Useful Way.

Limits of human rationality, tackled in many fields; in psychology, easily swayed by bias. Adams says Robert Cialdini a big influence (bonus: Influence summary below). “The truth is that facts and reason don’t have much influence on our decisions” (p. 36). Filters do not give an accurate view of reality, but what should make you happy and predicts the future. The big deal is the persuasion filter to decision making (in line with the Santa Claus filter, plus religious filter).

“In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. … A person’s self-image doesn’t fit their observations” (p. 48). “Trump’s win set off a cluster bomb of cognitive dissonance; anger, disappointment, fear and shock” (p. 52). Persuasion Tip 7: It is easy to fit completely different explanation to the observed facts. Don’t trust any interpretation of reality that isn’t able to predict (p. 53); e.g. prosecution versus defense in a court case. Without rationality, then imaginative argument. For a tweet: contempt or sarcasm, then insult. Analogy good for first-time comments, but not in a debate. Without facts, ad hominin attack (the messenger). Psychic psychiatrist: imagining you can see inner thoughts of strangers.

Confirmation bias: interpret new information as supporting your existing opinions. Consider collusion with Russia; none according to Trump supporters; obvious for opponents. New information generally does not change opinions. Mass dilutions included the Salem witch trial—then there were witches everywhere. [I suppose the same for communists in the McCarthy era.] Then the 1938 broadcast of the War of the Worlds; a double dilution because only a small audience watched it and was later claimed that the dilution was widespread. Ditto, the claim of child abuse when children were interrogated with suggestive questions. Tulip Mania and so on. Many topics get polarized, like global warming—science or a hoax.

“Trump supporters believed that they had elected a competent populist to drain the swamp and make America great again” versus “Trump was the next Hitler (p. 67). Inspiration versus disaster movie. The idea of living in different realities. “Trump’s unexpected win created a persuasion bomb that no one knew how to defuse” (p. 67). Persuasion tip 8: “People was more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things” (p. 67). Trump made news early on. Modestly disruptive with a lot of iffyness: pulling out of Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate deal. “Hypnotists rely on our irrational brain wiring to persuade. … False memories are common” (p. 71). Persuasion tip 9: “Display confidence (either real or faked) to improve your persuasiveness.” … Persuasion tip 10: “Persuasion is strongest when the messenger is credible” (p. 72). Persuasion tip 12: “If you want the audience to embrace your content, leave out any detail that is both unimportant and would give people a reason to think, that’s not me. Design into your content enough blank spaces so people can fill them in with whatever makes them happiest” (p. 78). Consider all the stuff left out of Dilbert. Liars use particular patterns of language; e.g., ask for what evidence exists. Sex: talent, attractiveness, smart or muscular work better than niceness. Wealth and beauty help.

Part 3: How President Trump Does What Others Can’t.

The Trump talent stack: skills collection other people don’t have which work. Trump: publicity, reputation and branding, strategy for marketing, negotiating preferences, persuasion, entertaining public speaking, sense of humor, quick on his feet, thick skinned—good counter attacks, high energy, size, smart. “Trump could have run as a Democrat, embraced Bernie Sander’s entire platform, and won” (p. 93). Persuasion more important than policies; politics didn’t matter. Filters as not intended as reality. Consider the “Rosie O’Donnell moment” in response to Megan Kelly’s comment on treatment of women. “It was a masterstroke of persuasion, timed perfectly, and executed in front of the world … funny, strategic, smart, memorable, visually persuasive, provocative, and perfectly on brand” (p. 95). Versus “narcissistic blowhard with inadequate credentials to lead the country” (p. 97). Intentional exaggeration as an anchor.

Adam’s persuasion list: big fear, identity, smaller fear, aspirations, habit, analogies, reason, hypocrisy, and word-thinking. Visual is stronger than oral. Word thinking is adjusting word definition to win an argument, e.g., abortion. High-ground maneuver; e.g., agree with criticism and respond like: we’ve learned a lot; the wise-adult response. Reason is not an emotional response. Immigration as an emotional problem. Analogies useful for explaining new concepts, not persuasion. Hitler analogy, could work as an anchor; going first works. Introduce new product as part of an existing habit, taking one-a-day vitamins. Fitness trackers. Politics habit based on how we consume news. Graft story onto people’s aspirations: Trump would: “make America safer, richer, and just plain greater” (p. 113). Clinton as more of the same. Fear: terrorism, illegal immigration; Clinton branded Trump as fear. Identity as your tribe, people like us; e.g., patriotic.

Credibility is persuasive; Adams said “It is easier to persuade people when they expect to be persuaded” (p. 116); in his case, as a hypnotist. Signal your credentials. Charging higher prices means a higher perceived value. Cialdini’s pre-suasion works; prime people with selected images. Brand yourself as a winner, like dressing professionally. Set expectations in advance. “Go bigly or go home” (p. 120); clarity and simple answers. Using these, Trump dominated the news cycle, although it was negative—“fake news.” He was obviously the most important person running. Persuasion tip 17: “People prefer certainty over uncertainty, even when the certainty is wrong” (p. 121).

Part 4: How to Use Persuasion in Business and Politics.

Linguistic kill shots include nicknames for rivals (high-ground maneuver); plus using uncommon words in politics—promoting confirmation bias. Consider Pocahontas. Trump’s visual advantage with big Trump properties. Power of contrast: use activities you excel at. Business: your ideas versus crappy alternatives—slime them (framing). Association: endorsements, labeling opponents. Match to Reagan. “Make America great again” came from Reagan’s 1980 campaign. Hillary’s talked about her, not the country. Godzilla of influence: Cialdini working for Hillary. Note effectiveness of Sanders, but not a master persuader. Adams claims he had one working for him. Cialdini to Clinton: call Trump’s speeches dark, an unusual word in politics—racism, reckless, bad language, whatever negative. New York humor not appreciated in the rest of America [also “Cuomo effect”].

Persuasion tip 24: frame strategy as two ways to win, no way to lose—natural high-ground maneuver. Fairness argument; high-ground: change argument to another level with something true that changes context. Paralipsis: many people are saying, so it must be true; “believe me.” Direct requests are persuasive. Repetition is persuasive. Simplicity: match speaking style to audience. Occam’s razor: simple looks right. Strategic ambiguity: tell everyone what they wanted to hear. Hate socialized medicine.

Part 5: Why Joining a Tribe Makes You Powerful and Blind.

Using persuasion filter to predict. Clinton branded Trump as a racist. Counter response: hug non-white folk. Detect major health issues in opponent. Sports team overcome racism: on the same team; identity. Trump: “team America.” Them Adams went bonkers when Clinton wanted to raise estate taxes: confiscation (p. 223). “Clinton announced her plans to use government force to rob me on my deathbed” (p. 223). [You decide: Adams went nuts or this is a persuasion game.] He got flack and called them “Hillbullies.” Adams claimed a lot of credit for Trump responses and ultimate win; claiming Trump was a master persuader rather than a dictatorial clown. [Thanks to cognitive dissonance, I assume he’s not now claiming he got it exactly backwards.]

Bonus: Influence, Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini (comic). Six major categories of (unthinking) compliance tactics: reciprocation, liking, social proof, consistency, authority, and scarcity; thousands of different tactics. Fixed action patterns, based on a sequence of behavior (trigger response; “preprogrammed tapes”). “Get what you pay for” (good=expensive stereotype), reacting solely on price—judgmental heuristics for automatic influence.

Contrast principle is the way we see differences between two things, presented one after another. Auto dealers as examples: negotiate the price, then suggest options which now seem trivial in terms of price.

Rule of reciprocation: we try to repay in kind what another person has provided us, a common marketing technique (e.g., free samples, unsolicited gift); avoid being in a state of obligation. Also, an obligation to make concessions; reciprocation rule brings about mutual concessions (make a large request, then a small request after being turned down—rejection then retreat). Marketing: get referrals. Concessions common with barter arrangements. Concession within the rejection-then-retreat technique often works toward agreement (and satisfaction).

We convince ourselves we made the right choice (e.g., after placing a bet on a race; not confident before the bet). “Mechanical Consistency” is a powerful motivator; it’s valued and adaptive. After a decision we don’t have to think hard about an issue. A commitment encourages consistency. Tactics used by prisoners in the Korean War: show leniency and start slow, build up to a confession; collaboration can be extensive (foot-in-the-door technique). “We accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressure. A large reward is one such external pressure. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment” (p. 22). Low-balling techniques fit this pattern. Commitment and consistency work especially well on individualistic societies.

Principle of social proof: we behave based on what other people do; e.g., canned laughter; a heuristic or convenient shortcut. Uncertainty can develop lack of familiarity with a situation. Sylvan Golding discovered (1934) customers at his grocery stores stopped shopping when the small baskets were full. He invented the shopping cart. Initially, customers wouldn’t use it (bystander inaction or apathy; pluralistic ignorance), so he hired shoppers to wheel carts through the store. Social proof works when we observe people like us (Jonestown, Guyana massacre). Tupperware party as classic compliance setting: reciprocation, commitment, social proof; liking bond between friends. The liking rule to sell cars (Joe Girard). Halo effect: some positive characteristic dominates how that person is viewed, including attractiveness—we assign them admirable characteristics. Automatic positive response to compliments, which can be used to win favor. More favorably disposed to contact (e.g., a contact approach to race relations). However, desegregation had the opposite effect, increasing prejudice. One approach to solving this is jigsaw learning: using teams where each student has only some of the information. Another liking routine is good cop/bad cop routine encourages reciprocity rule for good cop: perceptual contrast principle. Milgram electric shock experiments: duty to authority.

Scarcity principle. Opportunities seem more valuable when less available. People are more motivated by losing something than gaining something of the same value. “Limited number” tactic, a product in short supply. Similar is the “deadline” tactic; including the “right now” tactic. The problem is weakness for shortcuts (when things that are difficult to get are valuable). Psychological reactive theory: When free choice is limited makes them more valuable than before. Censorship: if it’s banned, we want access and feel more favorable to it. Scarce items are increasingly valuable when newly scarce and when we compete with others for them.

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© 2016 Gary Giroux