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Why Won’t People Listen to Good Ideas?

Executives frequently have to persuade others to agree and act on their point of view. At times that can prove extremely difficult. Senior managers may want to include an important new initiative in the organization’s priorities for the coming year. IT executives have to agree on the most efficient way to manage company data as well as evaluate, purchase, implement and customize software that will run day to day operations.  Senior marketers are required to come up with marketing strategies to achieve company goals and evaluate plans for individual campaigns. 

In each case, the key players involved must agree. But at times that can be extremely hard to achieve. Sometimes it seems that people just won’t listen to good ideas. Researchers have carefully studied this phenomenon using controlled scientific experiments. The results may surprise you.

Why can’t they see the point?

Social psychologist Lee Ross’ research led him to conclude that people often express what he calls “naive realism.” Each person assumes that they perceive events as they really are. Eminent social psychologist Dr. Elliot Aronson explains that since we are sure we recognize reality, our tendency is to assume that others who are reasonable should be able to see things our way. If they don’t, we assume that they aren’t reasonable. But are we ourselves always able to see the facts clearly?

NBC news reported on a study done on “seeing the facts” in the political arena. During the 2004 presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry, Drew Westen, Director of Clinical Psychology at Emory University conducted a study using functional MRI (fMRI) equipment. This machine allows researchers to monitor blood flow to different parts of the brain, revealing how people’s minds react to various situations.  One study found, for example, that the brain area normally involved in reading did not activate when those coping with dyslexia attempted to read. Another neural region tried to do the job for which it was not equipped (like star quarterbacks Tom Brady or Drew Brees playing nose tackle).

In Dr. Westen’s study, staunch Republicans and Democrats heard contradictory statements  released by Bush or Kerry on important issues while monitored by the fMRI equipment. When hearing their own candidate’s points, supporters’ brain regions involved in reasoning and emotion lit up. They paid close attention and liked what they heard. But when listening to the opposing candidate, the reaction was quite different. "We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," the researcher reported. People paid little attention to a viewpoint that contradicted their own. According to NBC, “The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say…The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.”

That’s a scary finding. And if people whose minds are made up can discount or ignore inconvenient facts in a crucial matter like national leadership, what hope do we have of winning colleagues to our point of view on company initiatives, enterprise software or marketing strategies? Fortunately, research has not only revealed human biases, but some helpful approaches for overcoming them as well. Stay tuned.

The Allied Group is a full service fulfillment and marketing communications company that provides marketing and marketing support as well as transactional document programs to companies in the insurance, benefits administration and financial services sectors.

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