Building a PDF to Image Converter

The Confident Change Management course was a major effort for us. The result is 800 pages of content and over 11 hours of video. It also required over 1,000 hours of time directly and the creation of four different pieces of technology to help us manage the process. This post is about the tool we built to convert PDF documents into images that we could use in videos.

PDFs for Exercises

There are lots of ways to build exercises for students. Just in the question and answer arena, you’ve got Word, PDF, online form builders, and whatever your LMS supports. Each of them has their benefits and limitations. We ended up deciding that, for our course, we could get to the best overall experience for most students by using fillable PDF forms, but we start with Word forms.

In truth, all the content we build starts in Microsoft Word or Microsoft PowerPoint. We’ll do note-taking in Microsoft OneNote and outline with MindJet MindManager, but the bulk of our content, including the things that we produce the courses from, are from Microsoft Office products. Word has a built-in forms technology, so why don’t we leverage that for prompting students to enter information?

The largest answer is that not everyone has Microsoft Word available to them in general or while taking the course. The largest common denominator is PDF, since everyone has or can get a PDF reader for free. There’s an issue getting the Word fields into PDF fields, but I’ll leave that for another post. For now, know the decision between Word and PDF largely came down to accessibility and ease for the students.

The question then becomes why not put this into some sort of electronic form and use that? The short answer is that it necessarily precludes someone from working offline. Given the nature of the course and our desire for the students to really reflect on the questions and dig deeply, we wanted to give them the option of escaping the onslaught of email and the ever-present interruption. With that in mind, PDF was the right answer.

Connecting Video Introduction and Exercises

To help orient the student, we wanted to record a video introduction to the exercise as well as providing written instructions. We felt that layering the two different communications approaches would give us the best coverage and retention of the intent of the exercise. The problem with that was how to connect the video component to the exercises.

Initially, we wanted to use a jib with an overhead shot, a leather three-ring binder, and some dual-mode front and overhead shots. When we did that, we realized that it just wasn’t coming together. You could either see what I was saying or the exercise, not both. That left us with the video overlay option. That’s what we do with slides and instruction anyway, so it seemed natural. That was until we realized the exercises were multiple pages, and sometimes I’d want to talk between the pages – and that would be awkward.

The solution was to create a single linear image of the exercise. We did this by outputting the Microsoft Word document to PDF, and then we built a tool to convert the PDF to images. The actual rendering part of the PDF wasn’t that hard, because we had a license to a PDF tool. What was interesting was addressing the gutter problem.

The Gutter Problem

Gutter margins are added to the inside edge to allow for binding. It’s used for 3-ring binding and every book you’ve ever read. The inside margin is larger than the outside. When you line up images for the different pages, you’ll notice the sawtooth effect, as the pages jump right then left. As a result, we detected the edges and added padding to the top, bottom, left, and right of the image we detect, so we could remove the whitespace then add back just enough of our own.

The Result

The result is a single linear image that we can scroll through in the video as I’m talking about each aspect of what the student will do in the exercise. Visually, they can connect what I’m talking about with what the pages look like. The result is lower cognitive load and better performance on the exercises.

Cognitive Load

In instructional design, I’m always trying to minimize cognitive load and free up more resources for the student to be able to focus on the work of learning the material. That means choosing words carefully, designing exercises and instruction that are progressive – in the sense that it uses very many small steps – and finding ways to make it clear what I’m talking about. I didn’t expect to need to use programming and image processing skills to make it a bit easier for students to learn – but I did. If you’re interested in what I built, reach out to me. I’m not going to post it publicly, but I’ll share it with folks who ask for it.

Book Review-The Hidden Persuaders

I can remember as a child sending off a letter about an idea that I thought was powerful. It came from a story I ran across about a movie theatre that ran subliminal advertising for their concession stand. The idea was that the advertising was conveyed in a single frame. It was too short to be perceived by the audience consciously but apparently was quite effective at selling popcorn. I found a reference to this movie theatre popcorn situation in The Hidden Persuaders. Though Vance Packard, the author, treats the recollection with skepticism, I wondered as a child how this could be used for good – rather than commerce.

I don’t remember who the letter was sent to, but, being a kid, I assume I wrote the President of the United States. The idea was to leverage subliminal messaging in prisons to attempt to adjust criminal behavior. An answer came back, I think from the Department of Corrections, that the FCC had issued a rule banning the use of subliminal advertising, and that was that for me.

However, after picking up Influence and Pre-Suasion, I wanted to go back and dig into the stories about how advertisers in the 1950s and 1960s started paying attention to psychology and how they could manipulate people in ways that weren’t expected. What I found in The Hidden Persuaders was strangely familiar and foreign at the same time.

What We’re Sold

We are, in many ways, a consumerism-based society in the United States. We as a people follow fashions, replace our cars every few years, and practice retail therapy when we’re feeling down. (Retail therapy is buying something to feel better.)

The overwhelming array of choices we face has transformed, from awe at what is available to us now that only royalty would have been able to afford a few centuries ago to a sense of entitlement that we must have all these things. However, at the heart of this isn’t the item itself: it’s how it makes us feel. We feel like “I deserve this” or “I’ve earned this.” The “this” we’re referring to is the feeling of beauty, freedom, status, or any of the other desirables that we want to believe we are – but don’t always feel like we are.

An interesting dynamic to this is that we buy things expecting they’ll make us feel better about ourselves; however, they don’t. We expect that a new car will refresh our vitality, but it doesn’t. We want to impress others by wearing a status symbol and are disappointed when our friends and peers purchased the same thing. How are we supposed to demonstrate our superiority if we’re constantly being copied – and are copying others?

Saying and Doing

We are willing to go to remarkable lengths to do what we say we’re going to do and maintain our public image. When people are looking, we will bend our preferences to support the identity that we believe other people expect of us, as we learned in Pre-Suasion. However, we feel no compunction to behave consistently with our answers if we don’t expect that people are looking.

Marketers have long known that people will answer one way and then behave in a totally different way. You ask them to commit to a course of action, but if they don’t feel they’re being watched when it comes time to take that action, their previous answer will likely not have much impact on their behavior. We want to be seen as rational, reliable, intelligent, and consistent people, when that’s rarely the way we are. We store up our reliability for those times when we believe we’re being watched. Even then, we often behave in ways that aren’t objectively rational.

I’m the Most Important Topic to Me

Nothing appeals more to someone than themselves. It’s not exactly new news – it wasn’t even new news when The Hidden Persuaders was first published – but it is profound. We spend time trying to get people to be interested in something else – or someone else like ourselves – but we fail to recognize that, at the end of the day, what everyone is most interested in is themselves. While this news may seem like bad news to those who want to motivate us, nothing could be further from the truth.

Knowing that everyone cares about themselves, including how they feel about themselves and how they’re perceived, there’s a lot of room to help people feel good about themselves. Makeup can make you look beautiful. It’s not creating a beautiful appearance, it’s changing the person’s perception of themselves as more beautiful. A powerful car can make a man feel more vitality.

While when stated directly, it may seem far-fetched for someone to believe that a product can make them stronger or more beautiful in an intrinsic sort of way. But this is exactly the way we’re sold to every day. Having the latest phone doesn’t appreciably change the features for most folks, but it sends a signal about the kind of person you are – and if you’re that kind of person, you deserve a phone.

Avenues for Expression

We use the things we own as proxies for who we are. Are we dog owners? Are we townhome kinds of folks? The things we have shape how others perceive us – or, perhaps more accurately, how we project what we want others to see. Once an object has been imbued with meaning, the meaning tends to stick. This is how brands work. They associate a characteristic or a feeling to a product, and then the product is sold based on the characteristic.

Nowhere is this truer than in the American love affair with cars. There are truck people, SUV people, minivan people, sports car people, sedan people, and other variants too numerous to mention. When you hear about the kind of car they own, most people begin to form images in their heads of the kinds of people we’re talking about. Truck people are rough and tumble. Minivan people have a lot of kids to be transported to soccer games – too many to fit in an SUV. Sports car people are wild and adventurous; sedan people are refined and reserved.

The truth is that the automobile industry reinforces these images. It tries to convince us that, if we just bought their car, we’d regain some aspect of our lives that we’ve lost (or never had). The innovation of the hard top is one of those success stories.

The Wife and the Mistress

Dr. Dichter, one of the key players in the act of peering into our minds to sell us merchandise, says that men settle down with a practical, down-to-earth, and safe person. The wife, in his analogy, is a sedan. He continues, however, that in his perspective, a man never forgets his desire for youthful passion. Convertibles were this image of vitality, excitement, and passion. He considered the convertible the mistress. Convertibles were, at the time, canvas, because of the need to fold.

The introduction of the hard top, he argued, would be like the best of both worlds: the perceived safety and stability of a sedan and the excitement and toplessness of the convertible. Thus, a single car could help a consumer fulfill two aspects they have of themselves. They wouldn’t need to deny a part of themselves when they’re buying a car – or in their lives.

Kaleidoscope

Masters of the marketing game find ways to leverage these different aspects of products in a way that allows a product to be seen differently by different audiences. Younger adults see smoking as a way for them to look older, while older adults seek it to regain their youth. Both groups see the same set of products, but they see different facets of the products in ways that drive their interest.

The different perspectives for different audiences may be difficult to master and ever-changing, but, done well, it can be a powerful way to drive demand for your product.

Bad Looks

Of course, where there is a positive side, there is also the potential for a negative side. When you attempt to introduce an aspect of a product, it can conflict with core messaging or reason why people buy your product, as Jell-O found out. Jell-O is a convenient, inexpensive desert. It’s the kind of thing that you can do and not worry about it too much.

When Jell-O started running ads with these impressive, multi-color, molded creations, sales dropped. It turns out that people didn’t want to compete with what they were seeing in the ads. They wanted to be able to do something simple, and the beautiful creations interfered with that.

When we’re motivating people with features, we must expect that we may accidentally trigger a response we don’t want.

Higher Prices and More Sales

Traditional thinking is that higher prices result in less sales; however, the reverse is often true. As Predictably Irrational exposes, people use price as a signal for quality. If it’s low-priced, it must be junk. Thus, if the prices are high, it must be good. Whether it’s black pearls, turquoise, or anything else that people don’t know about, they’ll use price as a proxy for goodness.

Related to this is the awareness that people make decisions about how well they’re going to treat themselves, particularly with things that have no fixed price, like art or jewelry. The result is they go looking for something that matches the range they have set out to spend on themselves. Then they buy something in that range – or generally slightly above it.

Price should be about the exchange of money and should be logical, but it’s not. It operates in a different world of feelings and perspectives.

Frozen Panic

Another, unfortunate, thing that can be triggered in us irrational humans is being overwhelmed by panic. There is a state we can enter where we don’t feel like we know what to do. We’re overwhelmed, and we can’t process anything. It can be that we’ve got sensory overload (see The Signal and the Noise for more). It may also be that, in our quick assessment of whatever is going on, we’ve decided there’s nothing we can do. (See Emotion and Adaptation.) Said differently, we may have rapidly lost hope that there’s a way out of the situation. (See The Psychology of Hope.) Irrespective of the cause, the result is the same. The result is that we’ll do nothing. That’s why it’s important when communicating with the market that you don’t create panic, because the result is generally a lack of action.

Hopefully, you’ll decide that it’s time to look behind the curtain and find out more about The Hidden Persuaders.

Building Student Handbooks, Workbooks, and Lab Manuals via Book Builder

It was 2008 when I wrote the article for MSDN magazine that showed off the first book publishing Word add-in that I had built. It basically assembled individual Word files into one master document. We’ve used it to publish every version of The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide (2010, 2013, 2016), Secret SharePoint, Extinguish Burnout, and more. However, it had grown quite long in the tooth. Small problems cropped up that we worked around until now. We had to do something different, because we were building an exercise handbook with page numbers that matched the lesson and exercise, which meant we had to assemble the files with section breaks in them instead of page breaks.

The Problems

Being able to individually work on and track components of a large project is essential. We had that in spades. It’s a well-oiled machine as each element of the process moves from one state (and therefore queue) to another. However, when the OneDrive and Office integration happened, the book publishing tools choked, as Word and OneDrive got confused as to what was happening. We worked around the issue by copying the files to a non-synchronized folder and ran the tool from there, but it was frustrating and took time.

We also were always fighting the problem of starting new elements on the right side of a pair of facing pages. For The Shepherd’s Guide and other projects, it wasn’t such a big deal, but as we got to having separate exercises, it became important. The tool didn’t manage that – but it definitely could.

The tool didn’t do a good job of behaving well with the Word user interface. It would sometimes end up behind the user interface updates, and you’d wonder what was going on. We needed to make it reliably report status – all the time.

It also treated every file the same. You couldn’t say that you didn’t want to convert fields to text in the bibliography, but you wanted to convert all fields to their text for other parts of the file.

Other than the section/page numbering issue, everything was a small annoyance, which is why they hadn’t been fixed. However, that changed.

VSTO

Visual Studio Tools for Office was the initial name of the toolset used to build a compiled DLL add-in for an Office Application. Those tools have been carried through until today. The heart of it is a set of objects that expose the internals of the Office application – in this case, Word – to another program. It’s the same object model between the macros that Word supports internally and the externally compiled objects. The initial article made this point clear by first recording steps and then transitioning those into compiled code.

However, back then, I didn’t have a deep understanding of the threading model inside of Word or – to be honest – the complexities of updating the user interface from a single thread. The result was a kludgy implementation that made the user interface both in Word and in the dialog very non-responsive.

Threading and the User Experience

Since then I’ve had more than a few primers on threading, user experience updates, call-backs, events, and other ways to make the user interface better.

I settled on an approach that used DataGridView bound to a data set that managed. The result of that is the infrastructure would handle all the screen updates if I handled my data and fired the right events. The data source turned out to be my core objects, which isn’t the most normal case, but it’s completely possible to bind your collection (IList<>) to the data grid view.

Even the preparation to start the process changed as well. Using a similar strategy, the default settings were established, and then files were added to the list. Unlike the previous iteration that only allowed you to load a manifest at the end, this version of the user interface would allow you to load files, change settings, add files, and save the results. Where the previous version only supported a text file, this version would support XML files as well – where settings were stored with the individual files.

Settings Control

One of the user interface components that was moved into its own component was a settings control. This control would be responsible for creating a settings object and allowing a user to adjust it – whether the settings were the default settings or the settings for an individual file. By creating an entry point in the control to load from a settings object and to push back to a settings object from the screen, it became easy to adjust settings in the user experience without making changes every place the settings user interface was needed.

Restructuring

While the user interface updates were relatively easy to do by leveraging a data grid view, the rest of the code was a mess that needed cleaned up. It reflected the fact that it was a macro that was converted instead of a set of objects designed to work together. The restructuring started by moving from a one-size fits all to a per-file approach to settings.

A method would bring in a file using the settings object that it was provided. This allowed for fine tuning of individual files and some isolation. Additional separation of concerns was achieved by having the settings object be a cluster of other objects for different aspects of the assembly. Page settings and image settings had their own object and their own method for addressing these concerns.

The file assembly method, then, was largely a process of sequencing these individual calls. It kept the loading of the files and the copying, but most of the other detailed work got kicked out into separate methods. One class of settings, assembly, stayed in the main method, because it impacted the overall assembly. Adding breaks – including section breaks instead of page breaks – remained in the core methods, as did copying to a temp directory was a handled in the main method.

Copying to Temp

One of the problems that we were facing was the new behavior where Word was getting confused regarding synchronization when in a OneDrive synchronized folder. The solution was to do a quick file copy to a temporary directory and open from there. The mechanisms for doing this are straightforward in .NET, so having compiled .NET code that plugged into Word was a powerful combination.

In the End

In the end, the new tool is easier to work with, supports all of the new features we wanted, and allows us to create materials quicker and more reliably than we could ever do by hand, either with individual documents or with a single master document.

Confident Change Management Launch

Today is launch day. It’s the culmination of my career to date, over a decade of research, and nine months of seemingly endless days creating what we believe is the most comprehensive change management course available. It’s designed to help anyone become confident with their ability to deliver change in their organization.

The course is available as an online, on-demand course that has over 800 pages of printed instruction, exercises, and examples with 11.5 hours of video instruction. I recognized that, when you need to learn how to do change management, you typically need to learn how to do it now. It’s not some wishful thinking about something that might be helpful. Most people I know were given a project to change the way the organization works that needed to be done immediately with little or no preparation.

The course has an optional facilitated application sessions component that can be purchased. It is ten weekly two-hour sessions, with an additional one hour of introduction in the first session. They are designed to deepen your understanding of the content and provide you a community of people that you can ask hard questions and get honest answers. The first five sessions are exercise reviews, and the second five sessions are facilitated discussions around the barriers that make it difficult to be successful with change in your organization.

I’ve spent decades helping organizations of all sizes implement technology changes. We’d deploy SharePoint and Office 365 and realize that we needed to transform the way the organization communicates and collaborates. This experience taught me what works and doesn’t work. I backed this up with research on change, influence, psychology, marketing, and dozens of other topics to ensure that the successes we were seeing weren’t flukes, they were supported by the best thinking and research.

All of this is bundled in a layered learning approach that is designed to make the process of understanding the information easy and quick. If you just need a quick basic understanding, you can watch the video (at 2x speed, even). If you want a solid understanding, you can read the student handbook and do the exercises. If you need an even more detailed understanding, you can follow the references in the materials – and there’s a six-page listing of references included as a part of the course.

The online course lists for $2,999, but until July 31st, you can enter the code LAUNCH at checkout and receive a $1,000 discount. The facilitated application sessions are available separately for $999, but you’re offered an automatic $500 discount when you purchase the online course and the facilitated application sessions at the same time.

We understand that you may not be in the position to make this kind of an investment in your success today. We’ve also made available a free Introduction to Change Management Course, which explains why change is about people and not technology or models. We’ve also made available a change management resource toolkit that is designed to make it easier to accomplish change in your organization – whether or not you take the Confident Change Management Course.

Book Review-Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen

Every brand has a story, but does every brand tell a story? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Not every brand has a coherent enough message that it does tell a story. That’s what Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen is out to fix. The interesting thing about the work is that, when you’ve seen the root works it’s drawn from, there’s a sense of familiarity and clarity that makes you wonder what level of detail is right.

Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey is a classic framework that’s been used for movies and stories. In A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explains that every civilization with stories have a commonality. These stories all follow a predictable 12-step pattern. I was first exposed to the idea by Nancy Dwarte in her book Resonate. Her explanation wasn’t perfect, but it was a great launching point. When asking my good friend Heather Newman for additional resources, she suggested that I look at StoryBrand as a possible source. While I don’t believe that Building a StoryBrand is the best framework for building a hero’s journey, it’s a simplified model that can make sense as a starting point.

It was in my review of Story Genius that I first wrote about the journey and the criticisms that it’s too formulaic. However, in the context of marketing like Building a StoryBrand talks about or, more broadly, for corporate communicators trying to encourage change, I think that the framework is helpful. Without a framework, it’s hard for someone who isn’t a professional to get started. The journey is sort of a paint-by-numbers deal: you know the basics of what goes where, and you use what little – or great – skill you have to paint those colors in.

Who’s the Hero

It was in a darkened room at a comedy club when I first heard that you should never be the hero of your own story. Early on in our training, we were taught that the audience should see you as relatable and not better than them. That meant we had to be careful to tell stories in the third person if we were really a hero. (See I Am a Comedian for more about my comedy training.) Donald Miller makes a similar statement about your organization’s brand. The hero of the brand’s story isn’t the organization. The hero is the customer.

If your organization isn’t the hero, then what is the organization’s role? The organization’s role is that of the mentor. Your organization is the helper who enables the hero to be great.

Clear not Complete

Many organizations develop solutions that are complete and therefore complex. Their products have the greatest features – but those features aren’t what people buy. They buy clarity. They buy what they understand. They buy a solution they feel they can sink their teeth into. When designing a StoryBrand, the goal isn’t to check every box and enable every feature. The goal is to make your brand understandable, so that people will feel okay buying it.

Clarity can come through a clear message about who your customers are, what they’re facing, and what you do to help. It can come from speaking in a language that they understand.

The Internal External Split

Embedded into the hero’s journey is the split between the outside environment, circumstances, and behaviors when compared to the inner thinking world of the hero and those around him. There’s a natural tendency for organizations to sell their products and services on the features that will drive external rewards. However, the actual reason that people buy is to address their internal needs.

Campbell makes the point that each hero struggles with their being up to the task. Every hero doubts that they’re the right one to accomplish the mission. It’s the meeting with the mentor (one of Campbell’s 12 stages) where the hero realizes that they are the one. They are intended to accomplish this mission.

Discovering internal needs isn’t easy. Clayton Christensen in Competing Against Luck (and many of his other works) describes the process of figuring out how to optimize products as the process of figuring out what job consumers are “hiring” a product or service to do. The famous example is the milkshake being hired as a treat for children in the late afternoons and a treat for adults in the morning. During the morning commute, consumers want the milkshake to last. As a treat for children at night, the goal is the opposite – to make it possible for kids to eat it quicker so the parents can move on with their evenings. It’s one product with two different jobs to be done – or two different stories using the same actors.

Caring, The Challenge, and Getting Married

Graeme Newell and Stan Phelps in Red Goldfish speak about how consumers are changing their buying habits, and they’re looking for more responsible organizations. They make it clear that you need to communicate the good work you’re doing in a way that employees and customers can resonate with. Miller makes the point that you must tell people you care – or they won’t know. I’m not convinced this is the case, but it’s never a bad policy to share that you care about someone.

The problem is that even if you care about them, there’s no impetus to action. They need a trigger, a challenge, a push into the world of resolving their challenges. They need to have that moment of conviction when they decide they need to address the challenges.

However, the challenge has to be such that it seems more like asking the customer out on a date – a chance to get to know one another – rather than a marriage. Too often, the calls to action and requests an organization makes are too large too quickly. They tend to scare prospects off more than draw them in.

Being Scared is the Salt

Salt is an interesting ingredient. The right amount is imperceptible. Having too much salt in food will taste bad. However, a lack of any salt will feel off. Many recipes don’t work without a pinch of salt. The use of fear – or the prospect’s perception of fear – as a part of your pitch is important, but, just like salt, too much fear can create problems and prevent forward motion. The goal in your messaging is to explain what they’ll miss out on without your solution and what the risks are and prepare them to be able to say yes – without pushing so hard that they’re turned off.

Fear can be paralyzing, or it can be motivating. The big difference between the two is that paralyzing fear is generally too much fear.

Transforming or Being Transformed

StoryBrand proposes that everyone wants to transform. I’d argue this is incorrect. What’s correct is that everyone wishes they would transform or be in the process of transforming. I’d also argue that the true sentiment is they would like to see that they’ve been transformed and that it’s in the past. Learning you have done the transformation is more powerful than any recognition you might see.

Not all writers enjoy writing – but most enjoy having written. Being done with something offers the sense of completion – and accomplishment. Done well, the process of writing can be frustrating, difficult, and seemingly endless. Managing Transitions explains that we want to have the results of the change – but we don’t necessarily want the change process itself.

We want to have a clearer message that will resonate better with our audience, but we don’t necessarily enjoy the process. However, the process of Building a StoryBrand leads to having a clearer message, and that can be worth it.

Book Review-Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain

I think, therefore I am. Reason never had a stronger advocate than Descartes. However, Descartes encapsulated all that is human into our rational thought, and in doing so separated the inseparable connection between reason and emotion – at least, that’s Antonio Damasio’s argument in Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Damasio’s in good company. How Emotions Are Made and The Tell-Tale Brain both agree that the relationship between emotions and reason is complex. Daniel Kahneman expresses a similar sentiment in Thinking, Fast and Slow when he explains that our automatic processing (System 1) can mislead our rational thinking brain (System 2).

Friends or Foes

At the heart of Damasio’s argument is the belief that emotions can be helpful to rational behavior – that without the capacity for emotions, rational thought is robbed of its power and drive. Through the study of patients with neurological trauma in various regions of their brain and using neural imaging (mostly fMRI), his research led him to a hypothesis of somatic markers that inform the reasoning process.

The reasoning is basically that the primary emotions we feel shape the way we reason our way through problems.

Mind and Body

There’s a reasonable case to be made that what we attribute to our brains occurs more broadly in our bodies. Our hearts and our digestive systems both have substantial neurons. There’s direct imaging to couple patterns of activation in our brains to various emotional states and thinking patterns. However, that imaging doesn’t preclude activation in other parts of our body.

Given the electrochemical nature of the signaling the brain uses – and the apparent ability for the heart to reject that signaling – it’s not hard to believe that sometimes our bodies have a mind of their own.

Similarly, learning from the experience with those suffering from phantom limb syndrome and the treatments that rely on creating a visualization of the amputated arm, it’s a reasonable hypothesis that our brains rely on the constant signaling from our bodies to shape their processing. When robbed of this data, they sometimes end up in altered states. It seems like the body is our ground state – our frame of reference – for our thinking, and without it, we’re not in our right minds.

Hardware and Software

One of the tragedies of our modern society is that we vilify those with psychological issues. Those people for whom we cannot find biological defect are considered diabolical. Those with observable physical issues due to disease or trauma are somehow not considered accountable for their actions like those with mental illnesses are.

It seems as if we’ve developed the attitude that hardware (physical) issues are not the responsibility of the person but somehow software (psychological) issues are their responsibility. While this makes little sense, the prejudice exists and creates guilt and shame for those who are suffering.

Tabulae Rasae

The truth is that we’re not a blank slate when we’re born, nor are we fully written. (See The Blank Slate and No Two Alike for more on this line of thinking.) We’re born with enough preprogrammed in so that we can survive and a set of genetic factors that move us towards some ways of growth, but we’re substantially formed by the environment that we’re raised in. Adverse childhood experiences have a substantial impact on our adult lives. (See How Children Succeed for more.) Our adult diseases can even come from fetal origins. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)

If Damasio is correct, then the pages are rewritten as our body changes, and our emotions are formed from the signals our bodies are sending us. If he’s right, then that is truly Descartes’ Error.

Video Studio 3.0

It was 2017 when I last shared about the video studio and the configuration. Since then, we’ve made some important upgrades, like retiring the two Canon XH A1s in favor of a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema 6K. We also added two teleprompters (Glide Gear and Magicue), a jib, and a few other pieces to pull it together. Let’s take a step back and talk about the problem.

The Limitations

Most of the time, we’re shooting video for the internet, and that means a final resolution of 1280×720. The limitation of the Canon XH A1s – 1440×1080 wasn’t a problem. However, some of the more recent stuff has been going to a final resolution of 1920×1080 – so the Canons weren’t going to cut it. We have the Nikon D750, but it has a 10 minute recording limit.

We also recognized that even though we had managed most of the angular deflection of our eyes while recording, it was becoming more apparent that we weren’t looking at the lens of the camera when we were recording – we were looking right below it.

Finally, we didn’t have a good way to get overhead shots. For some of the infection prevention videos that we were shooting for Terri, we needed a way to show people multiple angles of handwashing and hand rub.

The Camera

There are a lot of factors that go into picking a digital video camera. For us, it needed to work primarily as a studio camera and secondarily as a camera that we could travel with. Blackmagic Design was a reasonable choice if for no other reason than we’ve had the ATEM and liked it. We landed on the Pocket Cinema 6K for two key reasons. First, it would use standard Canon EF lenses, giving us some flexibility. Second, it would allow us to do cropped frame to 4K for the foreseeable future.

The Good

There’s a lot of great things about the camera. We married the camera with a Tamron 28-300mm lens, which is great. The images are clear, and the minimum F/3.5 isn’t a problem in the studio, where we’ve got plenty of light. The screen is good. The menus are intuitive. The recorded video is very clean. The adapter cord allows us to attach the Rode NTG-1.

We ended up adding a SmallRig cage to it to provide mount points and protect it. We decided to add a top carry handle and we grabbed a few Magic Arms – double-headed threaded articulation. Overall, we’re very happy with the camera, but it didn’t come without a few issues.

I had some trouble with the CFast card I bought to record on. Ultimately, I decided to transition towards recording to portable storage drives. The onboard USB-C port allows for SSDs (solid state drives) to be attached through an adapter or enclosure. I could then slide in a pair of 1TB SSDs – one at a time. They record great, and a simple USB3 adapter cable allows me to pull the data off them and on to the editing bay at about 300MBps, or roughly 2.5x the recording rate. From a workflow perspective, this means that I can be offloading recorded information at the same time that we’re recording more. Given that 1TB is about 4 hours of recording at the settings we use – 4K ProRes – we can basically swap drives during the middle of a day of recording.

The Bad

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the problems with the USB-C port that’s on the camera. It was supposed to be that you could power the camera with USB-C, but it wouldn’t charge the camera. However, the language of marketing copy kept shifting, as I was digging into the problems I had with why my USB-C power pack wasn’t able to keep the camera powered. The camera would turn itself off after about 40 minutes. Ultimately, I got the answer that it wouldn’t work that way. If you must, you can charge the onboard battery with the USB-C – when the camera is powered off.

I ended up getting a V Mount/V-Lock battery plate with a D-Tap, a D-Tap cable that would connect to the camera, and an adapter between Sony F970 batteries and V Mount. That all required a cheese plate to allow for mounting. Assembled, it’s good. Finding all the pieces wasn’t easy.

I settled on this approach, because I hate having to carry around so many kinds of batteries. When I got the light panels, I got a Watson Duo LCD Charger, which charges the F970 batteries they take. With this solution, I’ve got one set of batteries that the light panels or the camera can use. The charger also means I can recharge the batteries from a wall or any 12-volt lighter socket.

I have no idea how long the camera will run on battery power in this configuration – but it’s a very long time.

The Teleprompters

I knew that I wanted a teleprompter and was trying to get one without spending an arm and a leg, that led me to the Glide Gear TMP100. It was designed for a tablet, but I expected I could use a 10″ monitor. The key consideration for me was that it be full resolution HD. What I didn’t account for was that the monitor was substantially thicker than what the rig was designed for. It required some modifications to get things to work out, and even then, it wasn’t quite right. Ultimately, that led us to a 19″ teleprompter from Draco called Magicue. It’s much bigger and better in many ways – and of course, more expensive.

For both, I needed to address the problem of the mirror flip. Most people do special software to do this, but for our workflow, having the ability to use Microsoft Word or Microsoft PowerPoint was important. We produce video every week, and we have guests renting the studio. It had to be easy. That required a Decimator MD-Cross to flip the signal. It’s like the Decimator MD-HX that we use to frame up signals for the Blackmagic ATEM – except that it supports flipping.

The other thing that I needed for both was a Z-Tilt Tripod Head/Mount. In the teleprompters, getting the camera positioned right is critical. Trying to do that on a micro-ball head just wasn’t stable or easy enough. Since you don’t need side to side, the Z-Tilt is perfect.

Glide Gear

In addition to the issue mentioned above with mounting the monitor, the hood on the Glide Gear was a problem. It wouldn’t seal around the edges of the lens. That’s important both for recording quality, but also because, if you don’t seal it, you get light pollution through the back of the glass, and you can’t read the teleprompter.

Because of the dimensions, it also necessitated a fixed 28mm lens for the Blackmagic to get the right angle and get close enough to the glass to not see the frame. The lens isn’t much crisper than the Tamron 28-300mm – but it’s lighter and much shorter.

Ultimately, we put the Sony DHR-11 on it, since it’s a compact camera and works well on a mini-ball head, and its zoom makes it possible to control what the camera sees (and doesn’t see) through the teleprompter.

We’re set up for this as a backup teleprompter, but it’s dwarfed by the Magicue 19″.

Magicue

Not withstanding the issues with the Glide Gear itself, the problem was that it’s small. The farther away you place the camera the less well you can read text. So, the problem is simply one of being able to read. The Magicue solves that problem. It’s also a more adaptable solution. You can adjust the tilt of the mirror – where it was fixed with the Glide Gear. It sounds like a small thing, but in this case, it counts. When you’re trying to get as wide a shot as possible, it’s sometimes necessary to tilt the monitor down just a bit rather than being horizontal – so it’s not seen by the camera.

The hood for over the camera is great. It seals around the lens well, and it doesn’t fall into the field of view as the Glide Gear’s shield tended to do. It even feels sturdier. Of course, you’d expect that with the greater cost – but it’s really nice.

The one hitch to the Magicue is the monitor – and, in truth, it’s an inexcusable limitation. The unit ships with a monitor that is 19″ diagonally but on a 4:3 format. On the surface, it looks good. Integrated signal flipping, SDI, HDMI, and VGA support. The detailed problem is the 1280×1024 resolution.

The challenge with a monitor for a teleprompter is that it needs to be bright, so that means just any monitor may not do. Because the image is reflected and some of the light is lost, it needs to be brighter than you’d normally need a screen to be. More importantly, you need it to be the right size. It needs to be about 19.5″ diagonally on a 16:9 format, because that format allows the width to stay inside the reflected area of the mirror. On the brightness side, it’s hard. The monitor they provide is 300cd/m2, which is moderately bright. Most monitors available off the shelf are 250 cd/m2 at best – and few places are selling 19.5″ in the consumer market these days. I did manage to find a ViewSonic VA2055SM that works fairly well, though I’ve got to turn the brightness all the way up.

There are other options that even get to 1000 cd/m2, but they’re specialty and command the specialty price tag. For now, I’ve decided that the monitor is OK. If I need to do something different in the future, I can.

Get Jibby with It

There are just some shots that are difficult to get without the right gear. The overhead shot is one of those. We wanted the overhead shot for the infection prevention demonstration videos, but also because I thought we were going to use them for the change management course we started building. Though we decided against using it for the change management course, it’s become an important part of how we can shoot demonstration video.

A jib is fundamentally a long arm that you mount a camera on the end of. In our case, the PROAIM Astra is an 8 foot jib that allows us to get a camera overhead. We elected to put the Nikon D750 on it, so we could shoot front with the Blackmagic and overhead at the same time. This created a handful of problems. First, the D750 has a camera door that ejects via the bottom, which isn’t convenient to change. We had purchased a vertical grip for it that it’s much easier to add/remove the battery, so we used it. The other problem was that the Jib is set to keep the platform vertical, so we had to get a 90-degree downward turn – and a micro ball head wasn’t going to cut it. We turned to a full tripod head that has great control for locking things off.

We had one last problem. The primary lens we use on the Nikon D750 is a Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5 that’s great for all around shooting but also extremely heavy. Facing downward, we can lock out the zoom and stay at 28mm or let it zoom all the way in and end up at 300mm. Neither really works from 4 feet above your head (to stay out of the way of the Blackmagic camera.) That why we picked up a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens. It’s a beautiful lens and has a reasonable zoom. We’d love to add a Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 lens to the studio, because it might be a tighter and better shot for some things, but it’s definitely a nice-to-have, not a must-have, for us.

The only real challenge for the jib is managing the counterweights. It’s sometimes interesting to get the camera on one end and get weights on the other to counterbalance. I had some 6lb mic boom counterweights that I had available, so I threw them into small bags and hung them on the post that is designed for regular bar weights. It’s not perfect, but it works.

The other thing for the overhead shot was to add a black rug, since our existing rug was a bit too distracting.

Miscellaneous

There were other things we rearranged, most notably the tower that used to hold the two cameras. It’s rather bare now, as we’ve removed two camera preview TVs and one switcher preview monitor, and have left the stand with little more than one preview monitor for the ATEM. There’s more gear on the floor now on various light stands and tripods, but we’re in a much more flexible position to be able to capture content in ways that make it seem seamless.

As you can tell, we’re in a much better place, not perfect still, but we’ve got a better picture, and we’ve got more flexibility to get the shots we want.

Book Review-Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade

What can you do to make people more likely to accept your proposals? That’s the key question Robert Cialdini answers in Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. He’s the same author who wrote the classic book Influence. His point is that the most successful sales professionals aren’t persuading in their actual ask. They’re preparing the person to be more receptive before they make the ask.

Trust

Influence has very little to say about trust. Pre-Suasion acknowledges the power of trust to shape the receptivity of someone – both positively and negatively. If you’re interested in trust, see my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited. If I have one criticism of Cialdini’s work, it’s the limited weight he assigns to the role of trust in a situation – and the ability that we can signal others to trust us.

The homage he did pay to the topic was in the form of a story: a sales professional asked a couple if he could be allowed to let himself out, get something from his car, and let himself back in. This fairly innocuous request – they were, after all, home and had met him – subtly changed him to be the kind of person they’d let walk into their home. This was a nudge that made the difference in at least some people, as his sales performance demonstrated.

Closing Windows

Cialdini believes that many of the tactics he describes in Pre-Suasion have a limited lifespan. The techniques open a limited time when a person can expect a biased response. Contrast this with Influence, where he explains six factors that have a much longer lifespan of usefulness. The impact of being allowed to walk in their home may last for the current visit – when he walked in unescorted – but sometime later, that effect may have been completely wiped out.

As a result, it’s not just the fact that you were able to execute a move to shift someone’s perception but that these were timed so they could be effective at the time of the ask.

The Future Vision

The actions we’re asking for won’t happen unless we can create a compelling vision for the end state. We can’t expect we’re going to get anyone to move if they don’t know where the destination is – and how we intend to help them get there. Few people would start down the road without knowing where they’re going, yet when we try to persuade people, we often fail to help them see the vision we have and why it’s desirable for them.

Hope, as C.R. Snyder says in The Psychology of Hope, is made up of willpower and waypower. Willpower is the desire to see the vision of the future come to fruition. Waypower is learning what steps can be used to help us get there. In casting our vision for people and asking them to join us on the journey, we must ensure that we share both the destination and we must help them understand how they’re going to get there.

Identifying with the Change

If you really want someone to take action, make some aspect of your ask seem like it’s the kind of thing that people like them say yes to – even if you had to ask for smaller commitments to get them to focus on this aspect of their identity. If they’re civic-minded – due to identifying as that after an earlier, smaller ask – they’re more likely to respond when asked to do something civic-minded, if the ask is framed in a civic framework rather than a more generic framework.

Sometimes all it takes to create the connection is a question. You can ask someone if they believe they are some desirable trait – for instance, adventurous. Most people, when asked if they’re likely to have a desirable trait, will say yes. Once they have identified with the desirable trait, they’ll feel compelled to behave in a way that’s consistent with their newfound identity in the trait. If you ask someone if they’re adventurous, they’re likely to say yes, and if they do, they’re more likely to be willing to take a risk to fill out a survey, participate in an interview, and so on.

Desirable Difficulty

In training and development circles, there’s an awareness that the difficulty level for effective learning is a narrow band. It needs to be significantly challenging enough that people feel they’ve conquered the learning but not too challenging. It can’t be too easy, because people will feel as if it’s beneath them. The same is true of people and their ability to engage in the information. Dr. Erikson used to wait for times when a truck was struggling to climb the hill outside his office and would then lower his voice. This forced the person in his office to lean in and listen a bit more intently, subconsciously cueing them that they should pay more attention to what is being said.

When we cause people to listen a bit more intently, they’re naturally inclined to pay more attention to what they’ve heard.

Unconscious Awareness

Numerous studies have affirmed our ability to be influenced by things – without us being consciously aware of them. We can be influenced by a word or an image even when we don’t believe we are. The study of judges’ responses to parole hearings – where they would grant more releases in the morning and right after lunch rather than either late in the morning (before lunch) or at the end of the day – proves that we can be influenced by things (like hunger) even when we’re not conscious of it.

Sometimes, the ads we see are shaped to fly under our conscious radar but leave a sticky residue on our subconscious to pull us back to a website that we visited. The ads may seem repetitive to the trained observer and the creator of the ad; however, it may fly under the radar to the point where it creates an affinity, even if it’s not conscious.

One-Way Bias

Another way that marketers bias our opinions is by asking about our opinion of their products – and only their products. The detailed evaluation of a product – without considering competitive offerings – tends to improve our perception of the product and not the rest of the market. Perhaps in our need to be heard and understood, we value those people – and, by extension, products – that are interested in what we have to say.

The Face of Blame

We tend to assign accountability to people – and more specifically to the people we see. If we see people, we assume that they’re causal to whatever is happening. The president is assumed to have the impact on the economy, but most economists agree that the factors that lead to economic stability, growth, or decline take place well before the current president is elected. If you’re going to be interviewed as a witness to any sort of crime, you may want to think about positioning of the video recorder. When we see people speaking about something, we believe them to be causal to the situation, so a friendly chat as a witness may move you into the suspect category if you’re being filmed and others are going to watch it. In that case, you want to make sure that you’re not the only one on camera – looking straight or nearly straight into it.

In fact, if you happen to be convinced or coerced into signing a confession – even if you renounce the confession later – you’ve got an 81% likelihood of being convicted, even if the confession is false (that is, if you’re really innocent).

Message Timing

It’s believed that sex sells – and it’s certainly true that sometimes it does – but not always. If someone was in the market for a relationship, they spent more time looking at images of attractive people. However, for those who weren’t in the market for a relationship, they spent no additional time looking at the images of the attractive people. The message is that maybe that wandering eye is a sign that they’re trying to keep their options open or they’re looking to “upgrade.”

There’s more to it than that. Sometimes you want to sell being a part of a crowd. It’s about belonging and being a part of something. Other times, you want to sell to the message that you’ll be able to distance yourself from the crowd. It turns out that, when you’re watching something frightening, advertisements about belonging work better than those that have you stepping out from the crowd. Conversely, if you’re watching something that’s romantic, messages of separating yourself from the pack work better. (This is perhaps to give you that added edge in your own romantic endeavors.)

Mimicry

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone and realized that you were drifting your language towards theirs? Maybe it was the words they were using or just the inflection of their voice. Perhaps it was the southern drawl when you’re down south. This natural tendency to mimic other humans is built in – and it’s powerful. Waitresses who more closely matched the speaking style of the diners got larger tips. Even Larry King and his guests would align to each other’s messages. If the person was higher in stature than Larry, he’d adapt his speaking. If they were lower, they’d often adapt their speaking to match his.

Mimicry works throughout the animal kingdom. The more we feel like we belong, the more that we feel comfortable. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.)

Blurring of Identities

There’s a fallacy about ourselves. We believe that we’ve always been the way we are today. We accept changes begrudgingly. We look back at our previous pictures and recordings of ourselves and wonder how that person could be us. There’s a sort of tension between the acknowledgement that the picture was us and the simultaneous belief that we’ve always been the way we are now. We believe our identities are fixed points instead of the relatively fluid and floating things that they are. Kurt Lewin described behavior as a function of environment and person. While he didn’t note that the person is constantly changing, he did acknowledge that our behavior is not completely dependent upon ourselves. Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

The fluidity of our identity can be exploited to create the illusion of greater capabilities and a deeper connection. When we work closely with someone, there’s a temporary merging or comingling of identities. We tend to attribute more than 100% of the benefits to ourselves and the other person, because, at some level, we’re not completely distinct any longer.

Distracting Environment

If I wanted you to accept my assertions here without question, I’d deliver this to you while you’re distracted. I’d put you on a bus. I’d have you in a noisy environment where concentration is required. The cognitive capacity to question what your hearing is a secondary step – not a primary one. In distracted situations, people will often accept what they’re hearing as fact, even if it is absurd on its face. That’s the trick sometimes used by marketers who are trying to get you to make a quick decision – and by social engineers hoping to get one past you.

If you want to figure out how to avoid the traps that are laid out for you, maybe you should do a bit of pre-reading of Pre-Suasion.

Book Review-Influence: Science and Practice

What makes us do something? Why do we decide to buy (and use) toothpaste A vs. toothpaste B? These questions start us down the path of wondering how we might get others to choose the choice we would like rather than the choice they’d make naturally. Whether we have a product to sell or a mission to help humanity, we want to know how to get more people to choose the way we believe they should. It all comes down to Influence: Science and Practice. It comes down to how we can use our influence effectively.

Weapons of Mass Influence

Robert Cialdini explains the weapons of influence one by one through the book. Each chapter takes on a different aspect of our psychology, which influencers leverage to achieve their goals. The list is:

  • Reciprocation – If you do something for me, I’ll do something for you.
  • Commitment Consistency – Once I’ve made a small commitment, I’m likely to remain consistent.
  • Social Proof – If someone else says it’s OK, I’ll likely take their word for it – even if I don’t know them.
  • Liking – I’m more likely to do something if I like you.
  • Authority – I’ll likely defer if I think that you have authority.
  • Scarcity – I’m more apt to want something if I feel like it has limited availability.

Foundations of Influence

Before exploring the factors of influence, it’s important to recognize a truth about why they work. We’ll buy an item that’s more expensive – because it’s more expensive – and that clearly makes no sense. We’ll take the word of a stranger about which products are better even if we might walk to the other side of the street if they were walking towards us. Why would we take the word of someone we don’t know? The answer is we have to.

I don’t mean that we “have to” in the sense that someone is holding a gun to our heads and making us. I mean it in the sense that we’ve got a limited amount of coping skills to deal with the onslaught of information and decisions we each face every day, and we must find some shortcuts to deal with it. The Organized Mind explains how we’re overwhelmed by the information we’re getting today and how it is orders of magnitude more than the amount of information our grandparents needed to take in.

The problem is that we’re trying to optimize, use heuristics (shortcuts), and generally operate in a world that is beyond our evolutionary capacity. The result is a set of systemic errors. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for some of them.) We’re not operating rationally all the time, because we can’t afford to. It’s too slow, too glucose-intensive, and too taxing in general.

Occasionally, the heuristics we’ve devised for dealing with the world fail us. Sometimes, those failures are engineered by the influencers.

Choices and Changes

This isn’t my first foray into reading about influencing and changing. Change or Die, Influencer, The Paradox of Choice, Nudge, Switch, Redirect, Split-Second Persuasion,
Change Anything, and other books have addressed how we change behaviors. The fundamental premises in each of these works are the same. We’re faced with too many choices. We can make small changes that make a big difference – but those small changes need to be converted into systems and habits to be effective in the long term.

Influence is primarily concerned with the immediate change and how to get the ball rolling more than how to sustain that change. (In addition to some of the above books, The Power of Habit speaks to sustaining change.)

Susceptibility

One of the challenges with these aspects of influence is that once you know them you’ll still be susceptible to them. There are many examples of how, though professionals believed they wouldn’t be influenced by the factors listed here, their records consistently reflected a pattern of influence they weren’t aware of. These influencing factors have a pull on all of us – whether we’re aware of them or not. Cialdini admits that he himself is still susceptible to them despite dedicating so much of his time on the study of the factors.

Reciprocation

You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. Quid pro quo. The rule of reciprocity is so woven into culture that there are dozens of sayings that reflect the fundamental meaning. Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that our willingness to support one another has led to our biological success. Robert Axelrod’s modeling supports The Evolution of Cooperation – with reciprocation at its base. So, conceptually, the idea may not need much support, but the degree to which it can drive people is often underestimated.

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and one of the key supporters after the disaster was the Netherlands, who felt they were repaying a debt they owed. In 1953, New Orleans had sent help to rebuild the Dutch water management system that was devastated during a driving storm. They couldn’t help but find a way to support the city that had come to their aid decades before the tragedy.

The power of reciprocation is held in the nature of our society and our desire to avoid being perceived as a moocher, ingrate, or freeloader. Despite the concerns of psychologists who have observed social loafing – letting others carry the load, if they don’t think that they’ll get caught – most of the time people feel indebted to their societies. (See The Blank Slate, Group Genius, and Collaborative Intelligence for more.)

One of the ways that reciprocation is used as a tool for influence has to do with the fact that our brains don’t make the distinction between the actions we’ve asked for and those that are volunteered. If someone gives us a gift, we feel obliged to respond in kind – even if we didn’t feel any desire to give them a gift. Because we don’t want to stay in a state of obligation, we’ll often quickly respond to whatever was given to us.

One of the other odd – but powerful – aspects of reciprocation is in the introduction of a concession or a retreat. If you ask someone for a big favor, you’re quite likely to be turned down. If you ask them for a second, smaller favor, you’re more likely to get a yes – after you’ve been turned down for the big ask. The smaller ask seems like a concession on your part, and the other party feels obligated to make a concession as well.

In our political history, the Watergate scandal makes little sense. Bugging the Democratic party headquarters wasn’t necessary, legal, or even sensible. However, to the president and his advisors, the author of the plan had already asked for and been denied two much larger – and more ludicrous – options. The remaining option of bugging the offices seemed reasonable by comparison.

Commitment Consistency

Our self-identity is fiercely guarded by our egos. Our egos have a wide array of resources that they can deploy to protect themselves. (See Change or Die for more.) Our egos equally capable of deploying resources to ensure that we behave in ways that appear internally consistent. The mental mechanisms at work are remarkably resilient and powerful.

Make a small commitment, and you’re more likely to make a larger commitment. If you agree to put a small sign of your civic-mindedness in your window, and then someone comes weeks later and asks you to put a huge sign in your yard – you’re more likely to agree. It seems you’ve decided that you’re the kind of person who is civic-minded and once that is done larger requests to do your civic duty don’t meet with much resistance. It’s as if the brain says, we’ve already decided this so there is no need to do any deep thinking about it. (See What Got You Here Won’t Get You There for 99% is a bitch, 100% is a breeze.)

The labeling effect is well known. If you accept a label as a kind of person, your behaviors will become consistent with the way you expect those labeled that way to behave. There are good sides to this in terms of labeling people as honorable and reasonable people and negative sides in terms of labeling people as delinquents.

The behavior can become somewhat odd, however, when it feels like, in the future, we’ll see an argument against what we want to identify ourselves as. Let’s say you attend a sales session for a product that is thoroughly debunked while you’re sitting there. One might rationally expect that no one would sign up given the idea was debunked. However, sales might increase, because the people present wish to stay consistent with their previous commitment – to listen to the pitch – and the awareness that, if they didn’t make the commitment now, they might never. This scenario also involved a deep desire to solve a problem that the solution promised but for which there were no other ready answers – but the possibility that someone would sign up for something that they intellectually knew wouldn’t work is spooky. (It speaks to the power of emotions – see The Happiness Hypothesis for a model of the relationship between emotions and rationality.)

Speaking of spooky impacts is the degree to which the person has sacrificed – submitted to difficulty or pain – is the degree they’ll defend their decisions and commitments. College fraternity hazing has a long history of condemnation, but those who have gone through it – the current members – hold on to it as a rite of passage. It’s a part of why they feel so strongly that their group is THE group.

Influencers engineer small commitments to lead to slightly larger commitments to even larger commitments. They create progressively more pain and therefore more commitment with sometimes disastrous consequences. Consider The People’s Temple and Jim Jones’ instruction to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. At the outset, this seems like an impossible thing. However, through progressively more costly commitments, Jones managed to develop a degree of influence that amounted to control. Jim Jones moved the group to Guyana, which isolated the group to any influence except Jones’ and simultaneously required a higher degree of commitment.

Social Proof

Being your own person is exhausting. You have so many decisions to make. It’s so much easier to take other people’s lead. It’s easier to see that others are successful than imitate them. You don’t have to worry about failure – after all, if it doesn’t work, you can blame them. A very small percentage of the world are innovators. (Everett Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations pegs it at about 3.5%.) Why would you want to do the hard work of being an innovator if you can take other people’s word for it?

Our world today is filled with obvious – and obscured – social proof. When you’re deciding between products on an online store, you’ll use the reviews of people you don’t know to help you narrow down your decisions and make better choices about which book to read or which product to buy. More obscurely, the motivational speakers you believe are successful are standing next to mansions, expensive cars, fancy boats, or other indicators that they can splurge, because they have the wealth that indicates they’re successful. Few people can look beyond these tricks to see the substance of what the person is selling. It’s too easy to use the background to determine if they’re successful or not.

As a humorous aside, with the video studio we have here, I can make it appear like we’re anywhere on the planet. I can make it look like I’ve got a garage filled with exotic cars, and we’re off sailing the Caribbean or the Mediterranean every week. What we see as social proof is often an illusion. Several speakers and motivational figures have been shown to rent the cars and boats as props for their work – the work of influencing us.

Liking

Our ability to like someone either because of their purported affinity for us or because of their apparent similarity to us is a powerful draw. We’ll often do things for people we like that we wouldn’t do for others. Liking is reciprocal. We tend to like people who like us. Further, we tend to like people who we believe “belong” to a group we belong to. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.)

Influencers will subtly indicate that they like you – and that they’re like you – to try to get you to like them and accept their influence.

Authority

Perhaps the most powerful example of the power of authority – or perceived authority – to influence us is Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience to authority, in which he asked volunteers to issue what they believed to be potentially fatal electric shocks to other volunteers. (There were no real shocks, and the person who they believed they were shocking was an accomplice/colleague of Milgram’s.) The result was that most people would issue the shocks if asked by someone of perceived authority. (See The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement for more on this and obedience to authority in general.)

The interesting aspect of Milgram’s experiment that isn’t often reported is that, when it was run a second time in an office building instead of on Yale’s prestigious campus, the element of authority was weakened, and so were the results.

Influencers try to surround themselves with markers that make them seem more authoritative than they are.

Scarcity

Throughout most of human history, scarcity was the reality of the world. There was rarely enough to go around, so when something was available to you, you tried to grab it. Even if you didn’t need it yourself, you could use it to trade for the things you needed later. Scarcity conveys power and status. It’s the challenge of luxury brands. They sell on their exclusive nature and that not everyone can have what they’re offering. This necessarily limits their options for expanding their markets. If the market is expanded too far, it’s no longer exclusive, and the core market is no longer interested.

Since the industrial age and the continued greater prosperity of the human race, the degree to which things are truly exclusive is shrinking, but that doesn’t stop people by being impacted by scarcity in subtle ways.

Consider the winery that declared, due to a fixed production capacity, they couldn’t sell more than six bottles of wine to a single customer. Instead of selling an average of less than two bottles per customer, their sales jumped to almost four bottles of wine per customer. The perception of scarcity was enough to drive greater purchasing power without any change in the product or packaging.

Offers are “limited time.” Products are “limited edition.” Sometimes, the limited time is the time that the promotion will be effective, and limited edition is for as long as people keep buying it. At some level, everything is a limited edition – nothing lasts forever.

In an odd turn, though people will report a product more desirable if it’s scarce, they will not rate it as objectively better. They want it more – but they don’t like it more.

Influencers try to create scarcity in the mind of the consumer by these “limited” offers and through concerns about the demand being overwhelming. How many times have you seen an advertisement with “only a few seats left” – only to realize that they’ve only got 49 out of the 50 seats in the room available?

The Limits of Influence

On the one hand, the power of influence is limited. You can’t always get someone to do what you want. On the other hand, the power of influence is unlimited. Skillfully conducted, you can achieve powerful control of people. Most of the time people, don’t realize that they’re being influenced, and that’s the way that the influencers want it. Though it doesn’t completely ruin influence when you see it, the effect is much less powerful. But that’s Influence: Science and Practice… influencing people without them realizing.

Book Review-How We Know What Isn’t So: Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life

It’s what we know that ain’t so that gets us in trouble. Whether you prefer that Artemus Ward quote from To Kill a Mockingbird or you attribute the saying to Mark Twain, the sentiment is the same. Knowing something rarely gets us in trouble. Thinking that we know something we don’t can have bad to tragic consequences. Understanding how our thinking goes wrong is at the heart of How We Know What Isn’t So: Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Thomas Gilovich’s work has come up in several places in my reading. He’s always associated with outlandish claims, like 94% of college professors felt like they were better than their average peer or 70% of high school students thought their leadership was above average. So, reading his work was a walk through the crazy path of how we see ourselves and how we tend to see ourselves in distorted ways.

Believing What We Want – Until We Can’t

The funny thing is that, unbounded by reality, we’ll believe some crazy things. Without measurement, we can believe we’re the best physician, architect, developer, or whatever career we’re in. Without some specific, tangible, and irreputable evidence, our ego can make up any story it likes. We’ll emphasize the characteristics we’re good at and ignore the ones we don’t feel like we excel at. We’ll use whatever reference point makes us feel better about ourselves. “At least I’m not as bad as they are” is a common internal monologue. (See Superforecasting for more about the importance of preselecting measures.)

In the land of beliefs, we fall victim to numerous cognitive biases and errors. The fundamental attribution error causes us to simultaneously judge others more harshly and to explain away our failures based on circumstances. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on fundamental attribution error.) We can make up our minds – and be completely incorrect. Incognito exposes some of the ways we fool ourselves with some simple and effective optical illusions.

The truth is that we will believe what we want to believe – about ourselves and others – until there is some sort of inescapable truth that forces us to acknowledge that our beliefs were wrong. Even then, we’re likely to minimize them, as explained in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). We are amazed by the wives who report that they trusted their husbands only to realize after the fact that their blind trust was misplaced. They had all the reasons to suspect there was a problem, but they refused to see it – with disastrous consequences. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited and its references for a detailed conversation about trust.)

Benevolent Dolphins

Sometimes the problems of our rationality are driven by the biased way that we receive information. If someone is led back to shore by a dolphin, we have evidence that dolphins are benevolent. However, if a set of dolphins were to lead someone out to their death, they won’t be alive to report about it, and therefore the information we get is biased. This is just one way that our rationality about things can be skewed or distorted. We also are more strongly aware of things that happen than things that don’t.

I have a weird dream and it seems oddly like a premonition. I know that dreams are most frequently recombinations of the things I experienced in a day and the brain’s natural systems working to impose order and sense on my world. But suppose in my dream there’s a helicopter crash. The next day, the news reports that there was one – and it causes me to remember the dream. If there’s no crash, I don’t remember the dream, thus I don’t consider it a failed premonition. So even just due to the vagaries of my memory, I can manufacture a higher perceived rate of success and start to believe in my premonition capabilities.

I suppose that this might explain why more people believe in extrasensory perception (ESP) than believe in evolution – they get positive hits for the random premonition and few memories of failures. There aren’t many opportunities to see evolution in our daily lives.

Similarly, the ability for astrologers to make seemingly accurate predictions has led to 20 times more astrologers than astronomers. (See the Forer effect in Superforecasting for more about the perception of accuracy in astrology.)

Molehills and Mountains

We tend to believe that things come from other things that are the same relative size. While we can accept that an oak tree grows from an acorn, we generally expect that something large came from something large. (See Bohm’s On Dialogue for more about acorns being the aperture through which the oak tree comes.) Judith Rich Harris explains in No Two Alike how even small differences in twins may get amplified over time. These small differences become large differences in the way that two cars heading off in slightly different directions can end up a long way apart if they travel long enough.

That’s what happens with self-fulfilling prophecies. They create their big effects by subtly shaping the results bit by bit. Say that you believe a child is good at math, so you encourage or praise them just a bit more. Over time, these small biases add up to a very large difference. Self-fulfilling prophecies can’t start from nothing. There must always be some kernel of truth, something to get the process rolling. Once the process has started, it will start to reinforce itself.

As a result, when we emphasize molehills, they become mountains. Instead of them staying small or getting smaller, they get larger as we continue to create more and more bias towards them being bigger, annoying, or challenging. Consider a married couple; the wife becomes progressively more frustrated at her husband for not refilling ice cube trays. In the grand scheme of their lives together, is filling or not filling ice cube trays important? Probably not, but many arguments have started over sillier things – like which way the toilet paper roll should be placed on the holder.

Everybody Wins

I’m willing to make a bet with odds that aren’t quite one-to-one that your favorite candidate will win the next presidential debate – at least in your mind. That’s what researchers found when they asked who won after several of the presidential debates. The actual performance of the candidates didn’t matter. What mattered was whom someone supported before the debate started. Two rational people (if we want to call people rational) listen to the same arguments and come up with opposite points of view on the same events by the nature of their beliefs. They feel like their favorite candidate nailed key issues. The opponent revealed the weaknesses of their positions.

This is sort of the way that gamblers rewire their brains to think about losses as “near wins.” There’s always a reason. They could have drawn another card, or someone else could have done things differently. While they may accept their wins, they’re not good at counting their losses with equal weight.

Listening to the Opposition

While it’s commonly believed that we fail to listen to opposing points of view, that’s not always true. Often, we will listen to the opposing point of view more carefully than we listen to the points of view that support our position. The opposing points of view are scrutinized more carefully. We’re looking for flaws in the arguments. We’re looking for something that just isn’t right. When we find it, we latch on to it like it’s the only thing that matters – though, in truth, it may not matter at all.

We treat our desired conclusions differently than we treat those conclusions we oppose. For our desired conclusions, we ask ourselves “Can I believe this?” and for those we oppose, the question is “Must I believe this?” The standard of evidence is much, much higher for those things that you must believe. So, while it may appear that we don’t look at opposing points of view – and that is sometimes true – the truth is that we often pursue them with greater fervor looking for reasons to justify why we don’t have to believe them.

Hand Me Down Stories

So much of what we know about the world today isn’t through direct experience. What we know of the world today is shaped by the experience of others. As stories are retold, the evidence that isn’t consistent with the theme is removed or neglected. We do this in our own minds to produce the consistency that we desire. (See The Tell-Tale Brain and Incognito for more.) The more powerful version is what happens when others recount a story for us.

Take for example some of the experiments we’ve heard about. There’s The Marshmallow Test, which was supposed to predict future success through the skill of delayed gratification. That’s likely true – but what most people don’t recognize is that marshmallows were only one of the sugary treats used to entice the children. Nor is it generally recognized that the recognition of the results wasn’t originally planned.

There’s been a great deal of discussion about Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority and the willingness of a person to subject another to what was perceived as a potentially fatal shock. What’s not often recognized is that, when the experiments were run in a place that wasn’t Yale’s main campus with all its trappings of authority but instead in an office complex off the main campus, the results couldn’t be replicated.

Take the Stanford Prison Experiment. Phillip Zimbardo’s famous experiment is supposed to show how the setup of prisons inherently lead to inhumane treatment. He’s personally made a career out of this experiment and the conclusions. However, many people are questioning how well controlled the experiment was. If the “guards” were coached to be cruel, or the reports about the “inmates” were not factual it makes the whole thing fall apart. (For more on the experiment, see The Lucifer Effect, and for more about the criticisms, see “The Lifespan of a Lie.”)

That brings us to the more obscure but formative story of Little Albert which shaped the profession. In 1920, John Watson and Rosalie Raynor wrote an article “Conditioned emotional reactions” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The research was widely quoted in psychology textbooks – and attributed conclusions and outcomes of the experiment that aren’t supported by the research. However, the problem is that most authors of the textbooks didn’t read the original research: they relied on someone else’s work, and they further summarized and simplified it. (If you’re interested, a separate recounting of this research is available in “Studies in Infant Psychology.”)

The result of the way we acquire information today is that we often reach the wrong conclusions, because essential details and limitations of the rules have been removed. (This is one of the reasons why I’m so particular about reading source materials when I can find them – and why I go out of my way to find them.)

Improvements in Longevity

Medical science is amazing. Our estimated lifespan is now roughly double what it was 50 years ago. Paired together, these statements make it appear that our improvements in medicine are responsible for our increase in life expectancy. However, that’s not the case. Most of the increase in life expectancy is the result of sewage disposal, water purification, pasteurization of milk, and improved diet. Our chances of surviving childhood are now much greater – admittedly in part due to the advance of vaccines – and someone who would have died as a child but instead lives changes life expectancy dramatically.

What we believe about the change in life expectancy – that it’s been a slow climb as we allow people to individually get older than they used to – isn’t correct. Nor is our assessment of the reasoning for those increases. For all the great things that medical science has done, it pales in comparison to the advances we’ve made in systemically providing isolation from the factors that would kill us in childhood.

Blaming the Victim

Faith healers may be your only option when traditional medicine gives up. However, these faith healers come at a cost – and it is more than the money they charge. They often transfer the blame for their failure to you or to your god. The advent of statistical measures in healthcare has improved delivery. Non-traditional healers may stand up to statistical validation – or they may not. We don’t know, because there’s been very little study of these types of healing scenarios. However, what we do know is that there is a propensity of faith healers to explain their failures away either as a lack of faith on the part of the patient or as God’s will being against it.

The first is a direct blame of the victim of the illness. If they just had more faith, they could have been healed. The second is a more indirect blaming of the victim. In the conception that God wants ill for you only when you’ve done something wrong, you land at either approach, costing you belief in yourself.

Converting the Improbable to the Inevitable

Statistics don’t come easy for humans. While we develop rules of thumb based on our experiences, when it comes to a hard understanding of the facts, we fail to recognize how even the improbable becomes inevitable given enough time. Though flipping a coin in the air and getting 100 heads is highly improbable, if you have enough people tossing coins for enough time, it’s certain to happen.

How many people would need to be in a group to have a 50-50 chance for two of them to share the same day of the year as their birthday? It turns out that with a group of 23, there are 253 different pairs – so a better than even chance someone in the group would share a birthday. Of course, this mathematical fact doesn’t feel right to our brains.

It also doesn’t feel right that we know things that aren’t so – and, as Mark Twain said, that’s what gets us in trouble. If you want to avoid trouble, How We Know What Isn’t So is worth the trouble to read.