a lecturer

Surprise Validator

If you are not familiar with the term Surprise Validator, I am sure the concept will resonate with you. Cass Sunstein described it during an interview on NPR where he was promoting his book.

First, a little background. As we have discussed here at EID many times, it is really hard to convince someone with a pre-existing opinion to change his or her mind. Unfortunately, and a bit counterintuitively, facts are among the worst strategies to use. People are simply too skilled at counterarguing against facts, especially scientific studies. The scientist was biased. The results are wrong. The scientist admits that the study isn’t 100% dispositive (which of course no scientific studies are). There are other facts that point in the opposite direction (and I like those much better).

Cass Sunstein has done a lot of work in public policy, so many of his stories came from there. As we have shared (here and here), public policy positions involve a lot of emotion and self-identity. So they are particularly hard to shake. Once someone has a position on climate change, taxes, same sex marriage, free speech . . . . it is likely they will keep it. Especially when the mass media present both sides of every issue, regardless of whether the science is really 50/50 or 99/1.

One hopeful study that came out recently showing one way to change people’s minds on same sex marriage – turned out to be a fraud. Not only does this mean their method doesn’t work, it also means that anyone who wants to deny a strong finding can simply point to this event as part of their counterarguing. “See – science is full of frauds, why should I believe you?”

My Take

OK, so here is the idea of Surprise Validator. There is one kind of person who seems to be able to change minds – the Surprise Validator. This is someone who has authority on the topic and an in-group identity with the person you are trying to convince. The example Cass Sunstein shared was Colin Powell talking about Iraq and WMD to Congress. Because liberals had a high opinion of his credentials, his testimony was convincing. We see a similar effect when someone you have known and liked for years comes out as gay (e.g. Dick Cheney). Or when a decorated war hero admits to suffering from PTSD.

The Surprise Validator works because we experience more cognitive dissonance counterarguing against someone we respect than we do from the ideas he or she is presenting. After all, much of our decision making process is much more like cognitive dissonance minimization than outcome optimization (but that is an article for another day). The “surprise” part is important because we need to develop the positive topic authority and in-group affinity before anyone tries to change our mind. Otherwise, we have gone too far down the counterarguing road to turn back.

Your Turn

So what do you think of the concept? Is this the one hope we have of fighting the gridlock in politics and policy? Or maybe a strategy you can use to win some battles at work?

Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London

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