Why We Do What We Do
Everyone knows the dangers of smoking, yet close to one in five of us still smoke. How many of us text while driving, have CO detectors, exercise three times a week, floss twice a day, and eat a hearty breakfast?
And those are just the things we need to do for the betterment of our health and safety. What about all those things we need to do to be better parents, advance our careers, or to gain financial independence when we retire?
We all know the “good reasons” for what we’re supposed to do, yet we often don’t do them.
Fortunately, there is this psychological mechanism called denial that often comes to our rescue. I say fortunately because without denial we’d constantly be in a state of overwhelm. But then, there are those that argue that denial is a bad thing because it keeps us from being honest with ourselves. You can tell who those people are. They’re the ones that are in a constant state of denying their need for denial.
Here are two reasons for behaving the way we do, despite knowing our behavior may have negative effects. The first is my own plain, learned-on-the street reason. The other is more studied and has implications for anyone trying to sell anyone something that will enhance their lives.
My street sense reason is that we only go around once (so says one well subscribed theory). Those things that would make our lives better require work, discipline, and delayed reward. And these are the things most of us would not necessarily slot in the “fun” column.
Furthermore, show me the person who always does the “right” thing, and I’ll show you someone who would probably not show up high on your list of people you’d choose for a stranded island companion.
For the more studied answer, I refer you to a Tedx Talk that I came upon the other day, the one given by Tom Asacker, a self-proclaimed change agent and the author of *The Business of Belief *(great book, by the way!) His premise is that many of us are working with the “broken metaphor” that our brains are like computers.
“Computers are lifeless [and] deal in fact,” he says. He explains that computers don’t care what they look like, they are not driven by their futures or desires, and they don’t crave control. “Humans don’t deal in facts,” he says. “They deal in truths, which are very different.”
To explain the difference between truth and fact, Asacker quotes Robert McKee, the screenwriter guru and author of Story.
“What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens,” says McKee.
Think about this the next time someone tells you that a UFO landed in their backyard or that they saw an image of Saint Aloysius in their toast and he said “hi.” You might want to maintain a safe distance until you really get to know anyone like this, but their truth is neither right nor wrong. It’s just their truth. The way we live our lives is based on what we believe is true, even if what we believe can’t be proven.
And if you believe what I just said, there are important implications for persuasion.
I can think of seven:
1. Don't try convincing a pig to sing. It won’t work and will probably piss off the pig. Trying to change someone's beliefs is highly risky.
2. Your pie chart will never get a standing ovation, and it is unlikely you’ll ever hear the words, “nice bullet points.”
3. Know the difference between your truth and your audience’s truth. There will almost always be a gap between the two. It is important to be in touch with how big that gap is.
4. Always make your Truth the lead performer. Make your facts the backup singers.
5. Know if your truth really matters to your audience. If it does, express it in a way that hasn't been expressed before. If it doesn't, you're in the wrong place.
6. Always respect truths that are different than your own. To do otherwise is to invite permanent rejection.
7. Before you tell anyone about your truth, make sure it is something you really believe in. Hypocrites never win when it comes to persuasion.
Granted, these are my truths. Choose to believe if you will. But that’s the nice thing about truth. It’s always ours for the taking.