heart and mind

At around 2pm on November 23, 1963, Sister Mary Francis broke down in tears as she told us the story of how President Kennedy had just been killed.

At around 8:00 am on September 11, 2001, I walked off an elevator in a New Orleans hotel, wondering why people were milling around a TV set. When asked, I was told that somebody had just flown a plane into the World Trade Center.

We all have them. Moments, forever burned into our memory banks and readily recalled in vivid detail.

During ESPN’s recent airing of the docu-series on OJ Simpson, I relived one of those moments. It’s a moment that can’t be compared to the global importance of a Presidential assassination. Nor can it compete with the singular most heinous act of terrorism in U.S. history. But, having passed the shock-and-awe test, it’s a moment that did find a corner of my head where it will remain camped out forever.

During the morning of October 3, 1995, I was gathered with a dozen others in one of our company’s conference rooms. We were about to watch the live broadcast of the verdict in OJ Simpson’s murder trial.

Our idle chatter came to an abrupt end as Judge Ito asked his clerk to read the verdict. As she began with a long legal prelude, she could have been reading the directions on the side of a soup can for all I cared.

“Get to the verdict!” I thought.

And then, after stumbling on the pronunciation of Orenthal, Simpson’s legal first name, she ended 9-months of wondering and debating.

“Not guilty,” she said.

“What!?” shouted the person standing next to me. “Didn’t the facts matter?”

He seemed to say what we were all thinking. There was unanimous confusion. The blood, the beatings, the Bronco chase – “How could there be “reasonable doubt?”, we all wondered.

As I once again saw the reading of OJ’s verdict during ESPN’s documentary, I realized that the facts did matter. It’s just that they mattered less than something that was not apparent to me at the time. What I’m referring to is a phenomenon I have personally experienced many times over. And it’s something that anyone trying to sell anything needs to be aware of. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to this as the “flaw of rationality.”

The Flaw of Rationality

ElephantHaidt explains the flaw of rationality using the metaphor of an elephant being guided by a rider on the elephant’s back. Rational, logical assertions are represented by the rider who knows where to go and how to get there. The elephant represents emotional predispositions or urges. While the elephant might be happy to go where the rider directs it, if it would rather to go in another direction, there is absolutely nothing the rider can do about it. Deciding on the direction the elephant should take is easy. Engaging the elephant’s emotional urges is far more challenging.

During OJ’s murder trial, the prosecutors and OJ’s defense team argued back and forth on the facts. However, to borrow from Haidt’s metaphor, the defense team also appealed to the elephant’s impulses.

To appreciate how this was done, one must first consider the circumstances surrounding this trial. The trial took place in Los Angeles – not the upscale Santa Monica community where the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman occurred. It so happens that Los Angeles is the same place where the Rodney King beating was still fresh on everyone’s mind. It’s the same place where a six-month sentence was handed down to an Asian store owner for shooting a black woman in the back. And it’s the same place where African Americans recently rioted over their treatment by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

What began as a “he did it” vs. “no, he didn’t” battle of the facts, turned into something that had far more emotional significance for the jurors, especially 9 of the 12 who were black. And it was done through a story that had nothing to do with the facts presented in the case – a story that would resonate with the jurors and reinforce their anger towards the LAPD.

You might recall the now infamous Furhman tapes, some of which were played for the jury. The tapes included racist remarks made by Mark Furhman, LAPD’s lead investigator assigned to Simpson’s case. While being played, the jury heard Furhman repeatedly use the word “n—-r.” Additionally, jurors heard Furhman talk glowingly as he justified perpetrating brutality on black suspects. In effect, these tapes told the story of how any person of color, including OJ Simpson, had little chance of being treated fairly.

Regardless of whether or not the “correct” verdict was arrived at during Simpson’s trial, Cochrane demonstrated a valuable lesson in the art of persuasion.

Especially in business settings, our tendency is to use relevant facts, case histories and sensible reasons to assert our points. But since we have been taught to believe that emotions have no place in business presentations, we ignore them. Yet, try as we might, humans are not able to achieve 100% objectivity. Feelings that result from our vantage points are always present. Moreover, they can powerfully mediate even the most logical presentations.

To borrow again from Haidt’s metaphor, the elephant is ever-present. Consequently, the better alternative to countering a fact with another fact is to tell a better story – a story that has an emotional context and one that can influence the elephant more than his rider.

Said another way, if the elephant is predisposed to turning left, and you want to him to turn right, proving that he’ll get to the desired destination faster via your preferred route will do little to change the elephant’s mind. Instead, show him how his preferred route will only lead to a rendezvous with those hunters he has learned to fear.