Clear thinking

In Defense of Reason

My animal spirits, especially the balance between fear and security, almost prevented me from writing this post, but I had to speak up against the herd when I read Anthony Iannarino’s post this morning: The Animal Spirits in Your Pipeline.

I also realize that my brief article will probably not sway too many people right away, but since I have a longer time preference, I do believe that over time my lonely lobbying in defense of reason may gradually win a few people over.

(If you don’t understand the italicized references, please read Anthony’s article first, then come back. I’ll wait.)

Let me first stress that I don’t disagree with Anthony’s theme, nor most of the details. I do believe, however, that the idea that buyers make decisions emotionally and then rationalize them after the fact is not new (in fact, Greenspan has arrived at the party about 30 years too late, unfortunately for the US economy). It was new in the 1970s when Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, among others, began publishing the results of their experiments, and was a much-needed antidote to the overuse of quantitative methods. We all know how Robert McNamara’s body count mentality in Vietnam worked out. Closer to our times, Greenspan’s dismissal of psychological factors distorted his own decision making and contributed to our current economic mess.

But it seems to me that the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction. Everyone is on the bandwagon now, which is why stories are touted as a panacea for persuasive presentations, and why people like Robert Cialdini, with his cue-based influence tactics, are seen as the complete answer to persuasive communication. We’re told to sell the sizzle, not the steak, but that only works once if the steak turns out to be crappy.

All animals have animal spirits that determine their behaviors in the circumstances they find themselves in.  For every animal but humans, the animal spirits are the only influence on their behaviors and “choices”. But humans are the only animals that have an additional tool to help them make those choices, and the only animals that create the circumstances they find themselves in. It’s true that emotions can affect our rationalizing, but it’s also true in the other direction: reason can affect our emotions. I’ll give you a highly personal example. When I was in my 20s, I had some chronic stomach pain, and went to various doctors to try to determine the cause. Finally, after an unpleasant procedure, the doctor told me he could not find anything physically wrong with me, and that it was probably related to stress. From that moment on, I never had a problem again.

In addition, emotions tend to wear off, but truth endures. That’s one reason that organizations have created buying processes to avoid impulsive decisions.

Moving away from danger and towards security matters a great deal, as Anthony tells us. But once we begin moving, reason can point out the best direction. Emotion moves, but reason directs.

Anthony also says, “all things being equal, relationships win”. I could not agree more. But usually all things are not equal, and reason is the best tool we have for identifying and communicating precisely what those inequalities are, and why they should matter to the person we’re trying to persuade.

My main point is that we still need both. Don’t throw out the baby just yet. If you think you can ride on animal spirits alone, just try making a presentation to a CFO without spreadsheets or ROI calculations. Or try recommending a complex piece of hardware to technical staff with pretty pictures alone.

 

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