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Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 05:02 | SYDNEY
Sunday 20 Aug 2017 | 05:02 | SYDNEY

Interview: Adam Alter part II



5 July 2013 12:31

Yesterday I began my exchange with author Adam Alter by asking about 'disfluency', the idea that people find certain words more difficult to process, and that we tend to associate those words with danger or unfamiliarity. Here's my follow-up question.

SR: Let me pursue the first part of your previous answer. You say that 'philosophers, scientists, and politicians have emphasized the importance of choosing the right words, sentiments, and ideas—or content—for millennia.’  I think that describes how politics is studied and reported on to this day. Yet you go on to say that ‘Much more recently…researchers have begun to consider the importance of how it feels to make sense of that content.'

That's an area which political observers don't delve into much. They focus on text rather than subtext. But what are we missing when we look at the content of, say, a negotiation or a joint communique and neglect the ways we process and make sense of that content? What else could we be learning about the ways political, diplomatic and business leaders interact?

AA: It's natural to focus on content, because it's easy to perceive, interpret, and record content. But so much of what's interesting resides in the context that surrounds that content. I've just published a book in the US called Drunk Tank Pink, which will be released in Australia in September, and the entire book focuses on context — the many cues that influence how we think, feel, and behave beyond conscious awareness.

Drunk Tank Pink is the name of a bright pink colour that psychologists used in the 1970s and 1980s to paint jail cells (or drunk tanks, as they were known colloquially), because they discovered that the colour pacified aggressive prisoners. Like that colour, much of what drives the outcome of political business is part of the background, or the context, rather than the content of the interaction.

We know, for example, that although people enjoy fluent or smooth experiences, a well-placed burst of disfluency encourages them to pay more attention to the content that follows. If you throw an unexpected word into conversation, or otherwise disrupt how people are processing the information around them, that disfluent experience functions as a mental alarm, which suggests that they need to recruit additional mental resources to make sense of the event.

Consequently, if you precede a critical message with a burst of disfluency, people are more likely to pay closer attention to that message. That's a fairly nuanced and somewhat paradoxical idea — that adding complexity to communication actually encourages people to pay closer attention to the message — and psychologists only stumbled on the approach in the last few years.

Beyond fluency, dozens of other contextual features matter. People who live in different cultural universes — say, typical Western environments like Australia, the UK, the US, versus Eastern environments like Japan or Korea — have very different ideas about the world. Western cultures tend to be less hierarchical and more linear, expecting patterns to continue indefinitely, whereas Eastern cultures are more hierarchical and anticipate far more change than do Westerners.

This cultural backdrop does much to influence how people from different cultures perceive social interactions, and their predictions about the future. It's easy to overlook these issues because, contrary to the content of an interaction, they're hidden from view. But understanding them gives you a much better chance of producing successful diplomatic and political interactions.

Those are just a couple of examples, but this is a very rich question — so rich that it inspired me to write a book. The short answer, though, is that so much of what determines the success and failure of an interaction is hidden from view in the form of subtle contextual cues.

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