Heuristics – we’re all doing it every day – basing our responses to information or stimuli on experience as opposed to cold, hard logic. It’s the brain’s way of taking a short cut to save processing time. Cognitive heuristics rely on several aspects, not least, representativeness and availability, and can play a huge part in our, or an audience’s, processing of information. And that can be pretty important in a media interview.
Representativeness is the mechanism by which the brain makes inferences about the probability of statements being true based upon how it fits with the receiver’s existing data, often responsible for stereotyping. As an expert in their field, a spokesperson will have much more available data and may assume that a message or statement is rationally understandable. But the audience may not have such access. As such, in message construction it is crucial that the audience’s available data, and thereby possible opinion, be accounted for. Equally important is considering how that data is informing that opinion.
The simplest example of this is the wine test. Even the most experienced oenologists (that’s wine experts to you and me) can be fooled by transferring good, expensive wine into the bottles of cheap, average wine and vice versa (even easier over a large group, but that’s another story). That’s because the all the available data, not just the taste, is influencing the outcome.
Availability can also change rapidly. For example, after a major aircraft accident, general public perception of the safety or risks of flying changes significantly, despite cool logic and probability calculations indicating otherwise. That’s because the availability of date ‘suggesting’ heightened risk is increased and the heuristic process short cuts logic, contributing to the cerebral outcome.
So, two lessons here. One: don’t assume that just because you’ve got all the correct data, the audience has access to that data – this is one of the cardinal sins of ego-centric communication. They may have access to different, even incorrect, data. Your message has to account for that (and remember, whereas good old-fashioned facts and figures are great for print interviews, they probably won’t survive the broadcast editing process unless you can sell them as vital and interesting). Two: try to access this data, understand what data networks are operating (not just what’s in the papers or on TV – the audience is getting much more sophisticated than that), so that your message can fit, support or subtly rebut this data.
All media interview preparation must focus on the audience. But it’s not just knowing about who they are, but also how they think (i.e. heuristically*) and where they get their information from.
* But even then, segments of the audience will be more rational than others, more emotions- or morality-based than others – men from Mars, women from Venus and all that.
So now it’s in paperback. But what is it all about?
Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge – where economics meets behavioural psychology – has become a prime reader for political communicators, having been linked to Obama’s presidential campaign and the UK’s conservatives. However, the ‘nudge’ is nothing new, as its authors admit.
As the Guardian handily explained back in mid-2008, rather than leave people to their own devices, or give them dos and don’ts, Thaler and other behavioural economists want to highlight the best option, while still leaving all the bad ones open. They argue it’s better for everyone to be automatically enrolled in a pension scheme (or more controversially for organ donation), but give them an opt-out. Or they may want a shop to put real oranges by the checkout rather than chocolate versions.
Now, if communication is defined as the response you get, then using the liberal paternalist methods of nudge to ‘persuade’ people to do the right thing, is the way ahead. The pragmatics amongst us will see much in the nudge. And the age-old methods of ‘nudge’, now comprehensively explained, are appearing across the communications spectrum. The applications in public diplomacy, foreign policy communications, information operations and media operations have yet to be fully explored. However, CB3 will be shaking up the cerebral matter to venture into nation-building nudging.
It’s not for everyone – Gordon Brown’s not too keen – but it’s definately got some traction. After all, it’s now in paperback, and being advertised like a common-or-garden Ian Rankin thriller (see the posters on the London Underground). Someone’s giving Nudge a ‘nudge’.