If you are in marketing or public relations, need to influence, like to shape opinion or want to persuade, properly addressing cognitive dissonance could be the key to success or failure.
I just finished listening to The Dropout, a podcast by ABC radio about the rise and fall of Theranos. You may have heard about the start-up bio-tech firm that was supposed to revolutionize the way blood diagnostics work.
Unprecedented Growth Based On Nothing
The company was founded in 2003 by then 19-year-old Stanford student Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes dropped out of Stanford after one year to start the company. Almost immediately, she cultivated investors and supporters that read like a who’s who list of the wealthy and influential: Sam Walton, Rupert Murdoch, Henry Kissinger, and George Shultz, just to name a few. Schultz, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, was more than an investor. He was a trusted advisor to Holmes. By 2013, the company was valued at $9 billion by Wall Street.
There was one big problem. The technology Theranos was founded on never worked.
Holmes allegedly knew it the entire time, yet continued to tout the technology’s success to reporters, supporters, and investors. Other than Holmes, the only other person who may have known the truth about the technology not working was her secret boyfriend and one-time Theranos president, Ramesh “Sunny” Balhwani. Currently, Holmes and Balhwani are awaiting trial on federal fraud charges.
Whistleblower’s Grandfather Doesn’t Believe Him
This massive alleged deceit came to light when Shultz’s grandson, Tyler Shultz, who worked at Theranos, noticed a disconnect between what he saw occurring in the company’s research lab and what Holmes was telling investors and the public. When Shultz went to his grandfather with what he had found, the response was nothing like he expected. Instead of listening to his grandson, the elder Shultz refused to believe him.
He refused to believe his grandson because of his own core belief that Theranos and Holmes had a working technology. He refused to believe his grandson, whom he loved and respected. He refused to believe his grandson when given the facts. He refused to believe his grandson when the younger Shultz had another former employee corroborate the story. He even refused to believe his grandson when the Wall Street Journal did its own investigation and published what it found.
When Facts Don’t Change Opinions
Why? The answer is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance describes the mental phenomenon that keeps individuals from changing an opinion, even in the face of facts. In the case of the elder Shultz, cognitive dissonance, despite all the evidence to the contrary, kept him from initially believing his grandson.
For marketers, communication experts, and those who sell for a living, cognitive dissonance is like an ocean undertow. It is hard to know when it exists, and trying to overcome it head-on only makes the problem worse.
Here are six things to remember when trying to overcome cognitive dissonance:
- Do not try to overcome cognitive dissonance with facts. When a person is provided facts that contradict their beliefs, instead of changing their mind, their original belief becomes even more ingrained. Think about the last presidential race. No matter what facts came out, the opinion of those who supported a particular candidate did not change.
- Tell stories. My February 2017 blog post, Better Results Through Purposeful Use of Behavioral and Educational Science explains why and how to overcome cognitive dissonance using narratives.
- Ask questions. Instead of confronting the dissonance with conflicting facts, use questions to lead the person to come to their own conclusion.
- In marketing and selling, look at how the customer has gone about making a purchase of a similar product or service. If a customer’s opinions or beliefs need to change from what they were when they made their original purchase, then look at the complexity of the decision-making process of the original purchase. The more complex, the more cognitive dissonance will protect their current opinions or beliefs.
- Let time pass. The longer a person gets away from when they developed their belief, the less cognitive dissonance acts as an obstacle to changing their opinion.
- Customers who change their core opinions or beliefs to purchase a product will have a higher chance of post-decision regret. It is important to provide post-purchase emotional support to these customers.
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Note: If you want to learn more about what occurred at Theranos, I suggest listening to the podcast, The Dropout. Also, the Wall Street Journal, which investigated and broke the story, has produced a book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. By the way, George Shultz finally came around and has since lauded his grandson for doing the right thing.