With Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip and author of several works of satire, commentary, and business, including Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter
Steve speaks with Scott Adams, the renowned creator of the Dilbert comic strip, about his new book, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.
Scott’s Ultra-Liberal Political Stance
Scott doesn’t identify with either Republicans or Democrats, and calls himself such an ultra-liberal that even the liberals don’t recognize him. And while he likes Bernie Sanders’ ideas on free college and healthcare for everybody, he hopes to get there through technical and systems improvements, not by raising taxes.
Predicting Trump’s Win
In August 2015, Scott gave candidate Trump a 98% chance of winning the presidency, contrary to nearly every projection at the time. His prediction wasn’t based on Trump’s politics or policies, but purely on Trump’s strong powers of persuasion.
As Scott tells it in Win Bigly, unlike what we’d like to believe, most humans aren’t really rational creatures but merely creatures who believe we’re rational, and he cites a lot of hard science to support his view.
Hillary vs. Trump
Scott compares Hillary Clinton’s approach to Trump’s to make his point.
When Hillary threw her hat in the race for President, she tried to persuade voters based on facts, logic, her qualifications, and policies, without realizing that voters make their election decisions on more than just facts and policies.
Trump, on the other hand, said things like “let’s build a wall”, which gave audiences a visual persuasion on an issue most people cared about. Trump made voters “think past the sale”, as Scott Adams puts it, so they weren’t focused on whether a wall was needed or what kind of a wall it might be, but on who would pay for the wall. It’s a technique car salesmen use all the time, where they get you to focus on the color you want, so you sort of commit to buying the car before you have actually decided to.
Clinton’s persuasion techniques were forgettable but Trump said things that we remember even today because he made them simple, repeatable, visual, and provocative.
Trump Provokes You to Think About His Issues
In Win Bigly, Scott Adams mentions Trump’s Twitter feeds, where he injects some wrongness and provokes you into thinking he’s gone too far. But that’s his technique to get people to focus on whatever he wants us to focus on, while criticizing him for being provocative. As long as your mind is thinking about the stuff he wants you to think about, he has a persuasion advantage.
The sub-title in Scott Adam’s book, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, underscores a master persuader’s ability to create imagery, go past the sale, and underweight the facts to get what he wants. Although facts matter in determining real-world outcomes, they aren’t all that important in decision-making, and science backs this up.
Confirmation bias—the tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms one’s own preconceptions—also downplays data and facts. In Win Bigly, Scott Adams shares an experiment where someone sent the text of Trump’s inauguration speech to an Obama supporter, misrepresenting it as an Obama speech, only to get rave reviews on it, underscoring the power of confirmation bias.
So the next time you make a decision, don’t be too sure that it’s all rational and well thought out because our brains trick us without our knowing it.
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Steve Pomeranz: This is not a show about politics and it will never be, and I know my listeners know that. Today’s show is not about politics, but to a degree, it is about Donald Trump. Well, not really. It’s really about the art of persuasion, and my next guest, who most of you will know by his work, considers himself an expert in this particular art. Another thing that you probably won’t know is that in August of 2015, contrary to nearly every prediction at the time, he predicted that Donald Trump had a 98% chance of winning the presidency of the United States. So, what does this have to with the art of persuasion, let’s find out. I’m going to welcome Scott Adams. Scott is the creator of one of the most popular cartoons of all time, “Dilbert”, and he’s the author of numerous books, the latest one being the one we’re going to talk about today, and its title is Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, and I’m very, very happy to have Scott on my show. Hey, Scott, welcome.
Scott Adams: Thanks for having me.
Steve Pomeranz: To make it clear, what are your politics and your policies? Do you agree, disagree, where are you on the Trump versus the world now?
Scott Adams: Well, I don’t identify with either Republicans or Democrats. I call myself ultra-liberal, meaning I’m so liberal that liberals don’t recognize me, and the big difference is that I like all the stuff that Bernie likes—you know, free college and wouldn’t it be great to have healthcare for everybody. But I don’t know how to get there by raising taxes, so I’d rather get there with technical and systems improvements. So, I haven’t really mapped any of the big parties.
Steve Pomeranz: Okay, so what did you see in Donald Trump that caught your attention?
Scott Adams: Well, I’m a trained hypnotist, so years ago I learned the art of hypnosis and became a certified hypnotist, and since then I’ve been studying all the various way of persuasion. There are lots of different elements of that, and I noticed fairly early on that candidate Trump had a set of persuasion skills, actual techniques, that are stronger than anything I’ve ever seen in public. I based my prediction not on his politics, not on the policies, not on his populism, or any of that, but based on his pure ability to persuade.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, what does a hypnotist, someone who studies or practices hypnosis, know about the art of persuasion? How are those two connected?
Scott Adams: Hypnosis is one corner of persuasion. It’s just a small part of the larger picture, but what we learned as hypnotists is that the world that most people see is backwards. Specifically, people, the normal people, see the world as logical. People who look at data, they look at facts, and then they try to arrive at decisions. Sure, we don’t get it right all the time, but it’s still a logical process, and every once in a while, maybe 10% of the time, yeah, we get a little crazy, but those are the exceptions. So, that’s the normal view of the world. The hypnotist view of the world is the opposite of that. The hypnotist sees people as rationalizing things they wanted to do for irrational reasons.
Steve Pomeranz: How do they come to that conclusion though? I don’t really see that. How do they come to that?
Scott Adams: Well, let me just give you some context. When I was taking hypnosis, the hypnotist who taught the class said to not look to the science for this, and you don’t need to have any belief, so it’s not about magic. It’s not about science. We just observe over time that if we approach things this way, we get a good result, so you should look for that too. Just approach things this way and watch what happens. See if it works. Since then, science has done a good job of confirming that people do not make decisions for rational reasons. We only think we do. There are a lot of great books that have tons of science in them. If you wanted to read the book Influence, by Robert Cialdini, or his newer one, Pre-Suasion, or if you wanted to see Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, or the book Nudge. Right now, there are lots of popular books, and all of them refer to hard science that is all in the same direction. It all proves that humans are not rational creatures. We’re only creatures who believe we’re rational.
Steve Pomeranz: Okay, well, if most people think they’re rational 90% of the time and irrational 10, and the reality is the opposite, that’s a huge disparity. So how does a master persuader use this dissonance—or this, I guess we could call it, it’s called cognitive dissonance—to move this target in the desired direction?
Scott Adams: Well, I’ll give you some examples.
Steve Pomeranz: Right.
Scott Adams: When Hillary Clinton was trying to do her persuasion, she started off with her resume and saying, “I’m qualified; I’ve done a lot of things that are relevant to the job, and here are my policies and my policies are good.” What she didn’t understand, and apparently, she had no advisors with her at that point to tell her that people don’t make decisions on those things. They only think they do. It’s an illusion that people care about policies as much as you think they do. Now, they do care but not nearly as much as you think.
Whereas President Trump was saying stuff like, “Let’s build a wall,” right? It was a visual persuasion. It had an emotional hook. People cared about the issue. We could see it. He made us think past the sale to what kind of a wall it would be and to who would pay for the wall. Making somebody think past the sale, which means to get them to think what would happen after the decision.
So the decision, in that case, was do we build a wall or not? But he was making us think past that to who would pay for it. That is a classic and a very strong persuasion technique; car salesmen use it all the time. If your car salesman says to you, “Do you want the blue one or the white one?”, the salesman is trying to get you to think past the decision of buying it so that you uncritically sort of commit to buying it before you have actually decided. Those are just two examples, but you can see right down the line that candidate Clinton was using the worst types of persuasion techniques— facts, logic, policies—and today we can barely remember what any of her policies even were. They were forgettable.
But you certainly remember almost everything that President Trump said because he had a way of making it simple, repeatable, visual, provocative. One of the things he does—especially on Twitter and in his rally speeches—is he’ll inject some wrongness that you recognize as being wrong. It’s a little bit too provocative. He’s gone too far this time. In fact, that’s something you hear a lot, especially recently.
Steve Pomeranz: We’re still seeing it. I mean, to this day, every single week, there is another announcement or something written in Twitter that gets everybody up in arms.
Scott Adams: Yeah, and there’s a lot of technique in that because what it causes is for people to focus on whatever he wants you to focus on, while you’re criticizing him for being so provocative. And as long as he has your mind thinking about the stuff he wants you to think about, then he’s got a persuasion advantage. So, for example, when he tweeted some videos of Muslim crimes against what looked on the videos to be non-Muslims, it didn’t really matter if the videos were real. It didn’t matter if they were actually what they seem to present. What he was trying to do was persuade you to think that unless we have strong immigration, there would be problems of this nature coming to this country. The facts, the logic, the how well do you vet, which countries do you talking about, surely you can’t mean all Muslims, which he doesn’t, but all of these questions came into play and people kept thinking about these visuals of the Muslim violence as portrayed in these three videos. The net of it is that, emotionally, we feel like there’s more danger than we felt before, and that’s really all he’s going for.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, okay, so your book title says a world where facts don’t matter, and the master persuader has this ability to create imagery, go past the sale, as you say, and yet we all want reality to be facts. And yet you’re saying that we live in an irrational world where facts don’t matter. This is a complete disparity or dissonance in our brains going on all the time.
Scott Adams: Yeah, let me clarify that. When I say facts don’t matter, I mean that people don’t use them to make decisions. They certainly matter in terms of the real-world effects; so in terms of the outcomes, all that matters is the facts, but we don’t use them to make decisions, and there’s plenty of science to back that up at this point.
Steve Pomeranz: Okay. Let’s move on. Let’s talk about this idea of confirmation bias. I found this definition: Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms one’s own preconceptions. How do you describe it in the way a master persuader sees the world and uses it to their own benefit?
Scott Adams: Yeah, so as your definition said, people tend to interpret all new information as supporting the opinion they already had. People rarely change their opinion. And we can see that with any major national election, that you get about half the people on each side. It’s roughly split down the middle, no matter who’s running, and no matter what policies they’re suggesting. It’s an illusion that people are looking at the policies. They are instead looking at all new information as, “Oh, yeah, that’s a relief. It’s the story that I like it to fit.” You’ve probably seen some of the funny street interviews that a number of people did. I think Jimmy Kimmel did in which a person with a microphone will stop someone in the street and present one candidate’s policy as actually coming from the other candidate-
Steve Pomeranz: Right.
Scott Adams: Just to see if it will change their minds, thinking it comes from another candidate. And people will reinterpret any policy as being a good idea if they think it came from their candidate, and that effect is very strong.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, you wrote in the book that you tweeted one of Obama’s speeches. I think it was 2012 or something, and you asked someone to send it to a known Trump follower and get an opinion. Can you just describe that quickly?
Scott Adams: Yeah, I think that was the … Was it the Trump speech, or the-
Steve Pomeranz: It was the Trump … I think it was the Obama speech. I don’t actually remember. I’d have to look at it in the book, but whatever you remember is it.
Scott Adams: Yeah, I think that was the case of someone sending a Trump speech to an Obama supporter and telling him it was an Obama speech, and then, of course, it was just the greatest speech ever.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I got it right here. Hold on a second, page 45. It was President Trump’s inauguration speech, and he showed it to a leftist friend saying it was Obama’s speech. My bad on that, and he said his friend loved it, so that’s confirmation bias?
Scott Adams: Yes. You can reproduce this test with anybody who has a strong opinion of who they want to vote for but doesn’t know a lot about the topics. Just present anything from the other camp and say, “What do you think of this? It’s your candidate’s opinion”, and you’ll find people say, “Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me,” even if it’s the opposite person’s opinion.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest is Scott Adams. He is the creator of “Dilbert” and author of numerous books, and we’re talking about his latest book, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, and we’ll be back with Scott in a moment.