Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
Tali Sharot has distilled research from the last four decades to explain how we are persuaded. She analyses this from many angles – the effects of fear, risk avoidance, our desire for control and the value of information – to name a few. The book is eminently readable, even by those of us who can’t quite explain what a cognitive neuroscientist actually does.
The author writes with some authority – as an Associate Professor and Director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London. She has a doctorate in psychology and neuroscience and is widely published in scientific journals and media. Her earlier book, The Optimum Bias, won a British Psychological Society Book award for popular science in 2014.
The Influential Mind contains many empirical precepts. The first is introduced in the prologue and is very relevant to every age, especially when it comes to explaining the apparent paradoxes of Brexit, Trump and climate change denial. “So you can imagine my dismay when I learned that all those numbers, from numerous experiments and observations, pointed to the fact that people are not driven by facts, or figures, or data”. Despite this, she has taken up the challenge of using evidence to persuade her readers, using techniques that she describes in the book.
There are many lessons to be learned, but they are delivered through a gradual building of layers of understanding, avoiding the didactic:
“My hope is that the characters in this book and the stories they tell will live happily at the back of your mind, raising their heads every so often when the time is right.”
Terms such as “pop science” and “pop psych” have been used occasionally to describe the book’s genre. The cover work may reinforce this perception. The book has also been dismissed, though rarely, as too “technical”. All of these are a disservice to a digest that is good science, made simple.
Dr Sharot cites current and historic research – many being classic studies. Some of the more recent science is, well, mind blowing. Much of this is the author’s own work in which the study designs are almost fiendish (but in a good way). In one experiment, peoples’ memories of a movie were changed permanently by supplying them with misleading information in a post screening test.
The resonance in modern society is readily apparent. For example, the author stated in a recent interview (Scientific American, 27 Sep 2017):
“I am concerned about the negative effects of social media. All we know about human biases—conformity, over-confidence and so on – suggests that the abundance of information and opinions on the web will result in misinformation, false beliefs and polarization. And we already see this happening. We can now find information online to support any view or opinion we wish, and that makes us more confident in our opinions and more resistant to change.
In one study …….[we found that] when two people agreed their confidence in their decision grew significantly. However, when they disagreed, their brain became less sensitive to the information presented by the other person. In fact it looked like the brain, metaphorically speaking, was shutting down. This is what is happening online – people respond to others that agree with them, dismiss those who do not (sometimes viciously), and the result is escalation.”
A challenge in this age of information overload, fake news and ill-informed opinion is the difficulty of evaluating truth:
“…people often ignore information that can help them determine who the expert in the room is. Instead they prefer to give everyone’s opinion equal weight; ….This tendency comes at a cost: by weighing everyone’s opinion equally, rather than according to expertise, people ……. made many wrong decisions.”
She deliberately chooses not to give us elaborate lessons on brain function. Instead, chapters tend to be a mix of anecdotes and research findings, peppered sparingly with neurological explanations. This works well, but also leads to a few shortcomings. There is limited synthesis of the various topics at the end and sometimes apparent contradictions are left unresolved. There is little about the limits of our knowledge of the mind and only briefly does the book touch on the often debated distinction between brain and mind.
Although the cover suggests that the book “unveils the hidden power of influence”, the content is more nuanced and for that reason, more effective. Dr Sharot’s style is to deliver the scientific concepts into familiar settings rather than, for example, to rely heavily on statistics. Her anecdotes and descriptive analyses seek to persuade the reader by offering recognisable situations that are readily understood.
Dr Sharot’s ability to straddle the worlds of media and neuroscience has resulted in a book that is at once credible, understandable and persuasive. These elements are often mutually exclusive and if this book does convince readers – as it should – it is a testament to her many skills.
By Tali Sharot
Hachette Australia; Little, Brown Book Group