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100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People: The More Uncertain People Are, the More They Defend Their Ideas

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When a belief is deeply ingrained, it will be hard to change. Susan Weinschenk offers some tips on presentation methods that can be used to overcome this obstacle.
This chapter is from the book

In #3, I mention the idea of cognitive dissonance—the uncomfortable feeling you get when you have two ideas that conflict with each other. You don’t like the feeling, so you try to get rid of the dissonance by either changing your belief or denying one of the ideas.

In the original research on cognitive dissonance, people were forced to defend an opinion that they did not believe in. The result was that people tended to change their beliefs to fit the new idea.

What Happens When People are Forced to Support New Ideas?

In recent research by Vincent van Veen (2009), researchers had people “argue” that the fMRI scan experience was pleasant (it’s not). When “forced” to make statements that the experience was pleasant, certain parts of the brain lit up (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insular cortex). The more these regions were activated, the more the participant would claim that he or she really did think the fMRI was pleasant.

What Happens When People aren’t Forced to Support New Ideas?

There’s another reaction that sometimes occurs. What if people are not forced to state they believe in something that they actually don’t believe in? What if they are instead presented with information that opposes their beliefs, yet they aren’t forced to espouse this new belief? In these situations, the tendency is to deny the new information instead of changing their beliefs to fit.

If Uncertain, People Will Argue Harder

David Gal and Derek Rucker (2010) conducted research using framing techniques to make people feel uncertain. For example, they told one group to remember a time when they were full of certainty, and the other group to remember a time when they were full of doubt. Then they asked the participants whether they were meat eaters, vegetarians, vegans, or otherwise, how important this was to them, and how confident they were in their opinions. People who were asked to remember a time of uncertainty were less confident of their eating choices. However, when asked to write their beliefs to persuade someone else to eat the way they did, they would write more and stronger arguments than those who were certain of their choice. Gal and Rucker performed the research with different topics (for example, preferences for a Mac versus a Windows computer) and found similar results. When people were less certain, they would dig in and argue even harder.

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