The Magnetic Middle
How can you get people to listen to the facts? What can move them to action? Previous blog posts showed why some resist or ignore factual evidence that contradicts their viewpoint and gave some ways to combat that tendency. Once you’ve opened the minds of colleagues, team members, customers and prospects, how can you best present the facts and gain their buy-in? This has been the subject of considerable research and a number of effective methods have emerged. One important communication strategy is: recognize and make good use of the power of the “Magnetic Middle.”
When the Magnetic Middle works against you
The Sherif study at Columbia University found that when the facts were unclear and groups of people had to make a judgment call, they quickly arrived at a compromise position and then stuck to that opinion, even when asked individually a year later. Participants actually substituted the group’s judgment for their own. This and similar studies led researchers to coin the phrase, “the Magnetic Middle.”
This would be no problem if a board or committee was deciding where to go to lunch. We would hope when an important matter is on the table, people would study it carefully and form knowledgeable opinions. Thankfully, that often occurs. But studies cited by eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson and others revealed that the more important the decision, the more likely we humans are to rely on the judgments of others.
One researcher asked each member of a group to publicly state the answers to a series of questions. Several members of the group had secretly agreed beforehand to give the same wrong answers. When the stakes were low actual subjects, who were not in on the subterfuge, agreed with the group’s incorrect responses to 35% of the questions. When the stakes were high they substituted the crowd’s bad judgment for their own 51% of the time.
Thus, when presenting unfamiliar facts on an important issue to a board or committee, an executive will often find individual members eager to stick to their established beliefs (confirmation bias). Additionally, the group opinion, once expressed, will be very hard to change.
Making the Magnetic Middle work for you
While people’s tendency to follow the group can go against you, it can work for you as well. For instance, a VP of IT may find it easier to gain approval for a major software purchase if he/she points out, not only the reasons for selecting it, but a list of similar companies who have already done so.
Rather than relying on an expert to convince staff members of the need and benefit of implementing a new procedure, communications psychology expert Robert Cialdini, PhD recommends that wise managers employ the strong influence of a coworker who has already used this method in another situation. As their fellow worker and colleague, he or she can often sway their opinions in ways an outsider could not.
Showing affiliates, like independent insurance agents, that others just like them already participate in a new program can greatly increase their willingness to adopt it themselves. One major pharmaceutical company’s head of training asked trainees to write down one thing they really liked about the workshop they attended. He then printed many of these testimonials on large posters and asked new participants to review them to see what their colleagues had said about the program. According to Dr. Cialdini and his coauthors, this trainer wrote:
I was a little skeptical at first about whether such a simple thing would work, but the impact was incredible…What was interesting was that this catalog of testimonials also helped me to influence senior managers to support future projects I was leading.
The urge to join our colleagues and friends in the Magnetic Middle can be powerful. Wise executives and marketers can use it to great advantage in moving others to take needed action.
The Allied Group offers full service fulfillment programs as well as one to one communications and other marketing communications strategies and marketing support to the insurance, benefits and healthcare industries.