Why Even-Handedness Isn’t Always an Asset

In the age of the echo chamber, appealing to the center doesn’t always work. Finding an ally on the other side might get you further.

As an executive, part of your job description is Persuader in Chief. You’ll occasionally have to deliver a difficult message to members about a divisive advocacy position, or an unpopular dues increase, or a risky new program. But you know exactly what you need to do then, right? Marshal the facts. Show that you understand both sides of the debate. Firmly state your decision, and stand behind it.


An article by Cass R. Sunstein in the New York Times last week makes some remarkable points about what messages people find persuasive and how much the person delivering them matters. Sunstein is a constitutional law scholar, former White House staffer, and longtime scholar of human behavior. In books like Infotopia and Republic.com 2.0 he’s shown how people tend to gravitate toward echo chambers online, where we mostly listen to opinions that mirror our own.

Our initial convictions are more apt to be shaken if it’s not easy to dismiss the source as biased, confused, self-interested or simply mistaken.

That’s not news — for proof, just take a look at how full your Facebook feed is with positive posts about your favored presidential candidate, and how little enthusiasm your chosen friends seem to have for The Other Guy. What is new and remarkable, researchers suggest, is that a balanced, even-handed approach doesn’t move the needle with people’s opinions either. When people are given a balanced presentation of information, Sunstein writes, “you might expect that people’s views would soften and that divisions between groups would get smaller. That is not what usually happens. On the contrary, people’s original beliefs tend to harden and the original divisions typically get bigger. Balanced presentations can fuel unbalanced views.”

In other words, you’ll still have trouble winning a tense argument by saying you understand both sides. It only encourages people to embrace the side they’ve already picked.

So what can you do?

“Our initial convictions are more apt to be shaken if it’s not easy to dismiss the source as biased, confused, self-interested or simply mistaken,” Sunstein writes. To put it another way, people are persuaded by people you might normally expect to support “the other side.” Or to be more blunt: You need a turncoat. Sunstein gives the example of a climate-change skeptic saying he or she was wrong, but one can imagine plenty of association-related “surprising validators.” The so-called “rogue” board member who’s now on board with a new initiative. A famously tight-fisted industry leader supporting the dues increase. The person who always said “no” to new ideas speaking out about the need for change.

Such people aren’t always easy to find, and you likely can’t engineer them. (At least not without people seeing through it.) But thinking about such people might be a valuable tactic the next time you have a difficult message to deliver.

What do you think? How important are “surprising validators” to how you deliver your message?

(TMG archive photo)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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