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Who We Listen To, Who We Don't, and Why
By Joseph Marks
Read by Sam Woolf
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We live in a world where proven facts and verifiable data are freely and widely available. Why, then, are self-confident ignoramuses so often believed over thoughtful experts? And why do seemingly irrelevant details such as a person’s appearance or financial status influence whether or not we trust what they are saying, regardless of their wisdom or foolishness?
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The Curse of Cassandra
ON THE SURFACE SHE POSSESSED many of the characteristics of an effective messenger. The daughter of Priam, King of Troy, and his second wife Queen Hecuba, Cassandra had status. She was beautiful, too: tall and elegant, with dark-brown curly locks of hair that coursed gracefully over her slender shoulders. Her eyes, similarly russet in colour, captured others’ attention with such a piercing force that they would often be overcome with wonder. But perhaps her most impressive feature was one most people only dream of possessing: the gift of prophecy.
It was said that Cassandra’s ability to ‘interpret and communicate the will of the gods’ was a gift from Apollo, as part of his attempt to seduce her. She predicted soldiers hiding inside a huge wooden horse left outside the gates of Troy. She foretold King Agamemnon’s demise. She prophesied that her cousin, Aeneas, would establish a new nation in Rome. She even foresaw her own death. But Apollo’s gift to Cassandra was a cursed one that caused her much anguish and, ultimately, led to insanity and death. For although she agreed to pledge herself to Apollo in exchange for this precious gift, Cassandra then rebuffed his advances, so she was punished in the most merciless way. Forcing his lips upon hers, the god spat into her mouth and swore that she would never again be believed by anyone. ‘In his struggle to win me,’ she sobbed, ‘I consented to him. But then I broke my word. Ever since that fault I could persuade no one of anything.’1
Cassandra may be a mythical character, but she represents a fascinating paradox. She possessed knowledge and shared it with people who stood to benefit from listening to what she had to say, yet no one paid her any attention or believed her. It is a paradox that we encounter every day. There are plenty of people around who make accurate predictions, whose proposals are carefully based on the evidence available or whose points of view are eminently sensible, but who have the misfortune to go unheeded – even to be mocked. They suffer from what has become known as ‘The Curse of Cassandra’.
From Trojan horses to Wall Street bears
In the late 1990s the US stock exchanges were a positively bullish place to be, with financiers shovelling seemingly bottomless pits of cash into dot-coms. It seemed everyone on Wall Street had bought into the idea that riches beyond compare were waiting to be made. Everyone, that is, except for one investor – the highest-profile investor. Warren Buffett, the then sprightly sixty-nine-year-old founder and chairman of investment behemoth Berkshire Hathaway, was unyielding in his disdain for what he described as the ‘irrational exuberance’ of the market. ‘After a heady experience of that kind, normally sensible people drift into behavior akin to that of Cinderella at the ball… Overstaying the festivities,’ he remarked, ‘will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice.’2
Many chastised Buffett for his gloomy commentary and his ominous warnings of ‘a bubble about to burst’. The champions of dot-com companies claimed that Berkshire Hathaway’s chairman, a well-known technophobe, would miss out on the oceans of profit that stood to be made. For a while the markets agreed. In the late 1990s the company’s shares fell. But Buffett remained steadfast, adding a mid-sized energy supplier and a furniture rental business to his company’s portfolio, further reinforcing the market’s perception that he was a Luddite. Drawing parallels between his pessimistic prophecies and those of Cassandra, investors dubbed Buffett the ‘Wall Street Cassandra’.
Of course the markets did eventually pop, with the previously dismissive investors – and not Buffett – suffering the reputational damage. Their ‘Wall Street Cassandra’ sneer proved unwise. In the long term it also turned out to be inaccurate. Ultimately, Buffett was publicly vindicated and his credibility soared to a level that has remained largely untouched ever since. He ceased to carry the curse of the Wall Street prophet who goes unheeded in their own lifetime.
That dubious distinction belongs elsewhere – to a true victim of the Cassandra Complex whose name almost no one would have heard of, had it not been for the investigative skills of the savvy journalist Michael Lewis.3
The real ‘Wall Street Cassandra’ was a man named Michael Burry, who was born in New York in 1971. He studied medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, before earning his MD in Nashville, Tennessee. While working as a resident at Stanford he found time to start his own hedge fund and quickly developed an aptitude as a shrewd and successful investor. In 2001, shortly after the dot-com bubble burst, the S&P 500 fell almost 12 percent. That year Burry’s investments were up more than 50 percent. Beginner’s luck maybe? Yet the following year when the S&P fell by 22 percent, Burry returned more than 15 percent. And even when the stock market began to register a positive turn, in 2003, Burry beat the market hands-down. By 50 percent to 28 percent.
During the mid-2000s Burry shifted his investment focus. He started taking positions against subprime mortgage bonds, at a time when there was no formal way to bet against them (he had to invent his own method). Burry’s genius lay in spotting the under-recognised, perilous fault lines underpinning the subprime mortgage market. And shorting them. The message he seemed to be sending to the market was one of an impending apocalypse. It was a message that seemed credible and evidence-based, and it was made with conviction. Burry had skin in the game. He was putting his own money on the line.
Who knew that Burry’s astute and perceptive insights would turn out to be the early predictors of what ultimately became the biggest financial crisis in more than seventy years? Very few, in fact. In contrast to those late-1990s investors who heard but dismissed Warren Buffett’s forewarnings, Burry’s prophecy simply wasn’t heard. Not by the media. Not by the financial in-crowd. Next to no one was listening.
Arguably, it was even worse for Burry than it had been for his classical forebear. Cassandra’s single great obstacle was an inability to convince anyone of her prophecies. Burry faced other disadvantages, too. He was an awkward communicator. He also had only one eye, having lost the other when he was barely two years old because of a tumour. This physical drawback made simple face-to-face conversations difficult because, in his attempt to line up his good eye, Burry’s glass one would appear strangely skewed. This awkwardness had dogged him throughout school and college, where he had made few friends. The fact was that Burry was seen as different. At school. At college. As a resident at Stanford Hospital. And when he arrived on Wall Street. He even dressed differently. In contrast to the industry norms of tailored suits, starched shirts and Windsor-knotted ties, Burry wore shorts and T-shirts to work.
Years after the crash, and despite his fund having made a gross gain of 726 percent, Burry’s entirely accurate prophecy remained a largely unacknowledged one. Perhaps the best example of how Cassandra-like Burry was occurred in 2008. Bloomberg News published an article detailing a long list of the foresighted folks who had predicted the financial crash. Conspicuous by its absence was the name of Michael Burry. No one called to hear his story. No one sought out his predictions for the future. Even the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission – a bipartisan group set up by President Barack Obama to examine the causes of the financial and economic crisis – weren’t interested in speaking to him (at least at first).*
They called the journalist Michael Lewis instead.
Why would officials from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission choose to contact Michael Lewis for an account of the warning predictions that were made before the crash? Surely it would have made more sense to talk directly to one of the principal sources of those predictions – Michael Burry. Michael Lewis is a very fine journalist, but he could scarcely be said to have possessed Burry’s practical expertise.
A possible answer emerges when viewing the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s actions through the lens of what cognitive scientists refer to as focalism or, more commonly, the focusing illusion.4 When judging the relative worth of a messenger, there is a natural tendency for audiences to assign undue levels of importance and causality to the most salient and prominent messengers. Often such people possess characteristics that provide them with a veneer of credibility, even though these characteristics may have no bearing on what is actually being said. The messenger just happens to be well known. Or charismatic. Or rich. Or dominant. Or likeable.
This explains why certain messengers – those in the spotlight – will often be awarded a much larger portion of the credit for any resulting successes or failures than they actually deserve.5 It’s unfair and yet understandable. When judging the relative worth of a proposition, audiences will often face the difficult task of having to process large amounts of information, much of it conflicting, in order to come to a satisfactory answer. Think about it. Questions like ‘Which candidate is the best choice for president?’, ‘Will Brexit really result in a brighter future for the United Kingdom?’ and ‘Does it make sense to bet against the subprime mortgage market?’ are incredibly tough questions to answer. It is surely understandable, therefore, that frequently we tend to judge an idea not on its merits, but according to how we judge the person putting it forward. We fail to separate the idea being communicated in a message from the person or entity conveying it. This commonly overlooked insight – one that is frequently missed by audiences, and results in them ignoring the expert in the room – illuminates a fundamental feature of the effective messenger.
They become the message.
Perhaps that is why the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission chose to listen to Michael Lewis’s account of Burry’s predictions rather than to Burry himself. Lewis represented a more prominent and accessible messenger.* He may not have been the source of the insights he shared with the inquiry, but he was articulate, intelligent and an economics-trained journalist who had once worked as a bond salesman at Solomon Brothers. And he was well known. In focusing on these traits, it is easy to see why the Financial Crisis Inquiry board of commissioners saw Michael Lewis as a more effective messenger than the Cassandra-like Burry. They were making a judgement about the quality of the message, based on the quality of the messenger. After all, it’s much easier to spot those who are in the spotlight.
But what of the argument that it wasn’t Burry being rejected, but rather his message? After all, rumours of an impending implosion of the subprime mortgage market were hardly ideas that many would have wanted to contemplate, let alone believe. Burry could have been the most charismatic man on the planet, but if the message he had to convey was an unpalatable one, it’s scarcely surprising that people should have chosen to ignore it. The fact is, though, that that’s not quite what happened. Many chose to ignore Burry – indeed, some of his existing investors tried to bale out on him before the subprime market imploded. Others, though, who agreed with his analysis, were able to sell the story more convincingly because they fitted the messenger profile better. Greg Lippman, who was a head subprime mortgage trader at Deutsche Bank, is a case in point. No smarter than Burry, and no more insightful, he possessed a confidence and dominance that Burry lacked. As a result, Deutsche Bank and its shareholders listened to him. Burry was right (and indeed profited considerably from his insight), but he was the wrong type of messenger, so his message travelled only so far. Lippmann was right and was also the right kind of messenger. He, his bank and the bank’s investors therefore benefited accordingly. At the end of one particularly successful year, Lippmann was paid a US $47 million bonus.
When someone communicates an idea, an audience doesn’t just make judgements about the coherence and validity of that communicator’s message. They also make a whole range of judgements about the messenger, too. Does this person appear to know what they are talking about? Do they have relevant expertise or experience? Do they seem genuine, or might they be trying to scam me? Are they tough enough to get the job done? Might they have an ulterior motive? Do I think I can trust them? These are important questions that should be attended to before you jump into bed with someone. Metaphorically or literally.
When Burry and Lippmann were attempting to convince investors that betting against the subprime mortgage bond market was a good idea, investors were no doubt asking themselves these exact same questions. Burry and Lippmann were both saying the same thing. The subprime market was in a perilous state that would probably bring about a tsunami-like financial crisis. Both men’s claims were thoroughly researched and credible, and history went on to vindicate them both. But only Lippmann was able to get the investors to listen.
Michael Burry was the ‘Wall Street Cassandra’.*
Messengers versus messages
This is a book that explores why some messengers and their messages are listened to, accepted and acted upon and why others are not. We define a ‘messenger’ as an agent – it could be an individual, a group, a media platform or an organisation – who delivers information. That information could be a simple piece of data, like today’s temperature, as broadcast by a meteorologist. Or it could be a point of view, such as an op-ed written by a journalist or blogger. It might be a rebuttal, as when a tweet or a Facebook post claims that a news story is fake. Or it could be a sales campaign that uses a paid ‘influencer’ to promote a product. It might even convey a policy idea, a vision or a worldview that attempts to influence not only what an audience pays attention to, but also what they think, believe and, subsequently, become. We regard an audience as anyone, from a single person to an identifiable group – large or small – to whom a message is directed. And we describe a ‘messenger effect’ as the change in the level of influence or impact that a messenger’s message has on an audience – because they sent it.
Importantly, that influence or impact doesn’t have to come about as a result of the content or wisdom of the message itself. Instead it comes about as a result of a trait that the messenger delivering the message is perceived to possess. We will investigate, in detail, eight fundamental traits that, whether real or inferred, reliably impact upon whether or not a messenger will be listened to. Some of these messenger traits will be familiar to readers. What will be less familiar, however, are the subtle, hard-to-detect and frequently missed features that signal possession of one or more of these traits, which so powerfully influence how audiences respond.
It is also important to realise that messengers aren’t necessarily the ones who craft a message. Big companies hire actors to endorse products in advertisements. Managers bring in consultants to deliver tough news or to advocate new approaches, prompting a commonly touted view about advisors that ‘They don’t need to know more than their client, they just need to have a suit, a briefcase and come from out of town.’ Large sums are spent on speakers who get junior researchers – or speechwriters, if they are really important – to pen the content. Rivals pass missives through mediators. Divorcing couples pass messages through lawyers. Schoolchildren recruit friends to send out feelers to the girls and boys they like in class. The media pays handsome sums to get a quote from the most interesting messenger for a story, even when there are others who could provide the same soundbites for a much smaller fee.
Regardless of its source, when a message is delivered, something intriguing happens. The messenger becomes connected to the content of that message, in the listener’s mind.6 Even if they did not craft the message themselves. This association can have a dramatic effect on how the messenger and their messages are subsequently evaluated. It helps to explain, for example, the origin of the phrase ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’, which is thought to have originated at a time when warring generals were known to punish scouts and emissaries who brought bad news. Legend has it that when a messenger arrived to inform Tigranes the Great, King of Armenia, that forces under the Roman consul Lucullus were on their way, Tigranes responded by removing the messenger’s head. One can only assume that any subsequent information imparted was rather more positive, though it’s worth noting that Lucullus went on to defeat Tigranes.*
Messengers weren’t only at risk when it came to delivering bad news to their leaders. Royal messengers faced similar danger when delivering a message from the monarch. As spokespeople for the King of England of former times, town criers were particularly at risk of harm from angry mobs who did not like the messages being passed down from the royal palace. So commonplace were the physical attacks on town criers that laws were passed to protect them. Any harm caused to a town crier was, by association, harm directed at the king. It was treason. And the penalty for treason? Death.7
If the link we make between a messenger and their message is such a strong one, then it’s important to understand how we make trait-based inferences about the myriad of messengers we encounter in our lives, and which of these traits matter most. How do we decide what a messenger knows? How do we evaluate what skills they possess? How do we judge what sort of person they are?
While we certainly build and modify our views about others over time, through repeated interactions and exchanges, we also form beliefs and opinions about them extremely quickly – sometimes in a matter of milliseconds. The Stanford psychologist Nalini Ambady, who before her untimely death from leukaemia in 2013 pioneered much of the work on snap-judgements (single-glance impressions), demonstrated conclusively that humans are actually very good at forming generally accurate impressions based on brief observations.8 Her work showed that our first impressions of a complete stranger not only tend to match those of others viewing the same stranger for a similarly brief period of time, but are also likely to be in line with the stranger’s own assessment of their personality traits.
Such judgements are fundamentally linked to our perception of how accomplished someone is at communicating information. Together with Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal, Ambady conducted a study where participants saw a series of video-clips showing thirteen teachers in action.9 Each clip was only ten seconds in duration and there was no sound. After watching them, each participant was asked to rate how they perceived the teachers, across fifteen dimensions of personality: confidence, enthusiasm, dominance, warmth, attentiveness, optimism, competence, professionalism, and so on. What Ambady and Rosenthal discovered was that the participants’ ratings were incredibly consistent. If a teacher was perceived as likeable by one person, they were probably seen as likeable by most people. But more than that, the evaluations arrived at by the group of volunteers were remarkably similar to the evaluations given by the teachers’ students at the end of the semester. Think about that. People who had seen ten-second video-clips of teachers – with no sound, remember – made judgements about their personalities that turned out to correlate closely with how their actual students, who had sat through months of lectures, would rate their teaching at the end of term.
It sounds miraculous, but in fact those observing the videos were simply responding to the physical cues given off by each of the thirteen teachers. When Ambady and Rosenthal arranged for two independent researchers to watch the video-clips and break down each teacher’s body language, second-by-second, they discovered that every time a teacher looked down, shook their head, became more animated, enthusiastic or simply smiled, their movements registered with observers and, cumulatively, shaped the perceptions they formed. Ultimately, teachers who seemed animated and enthusiastic were marked up. Those who frowned were viewed more critically, as were those who looked down too much and therefore appeared to lack confidence. Teachers who displayed these last two forms of behaviour received worse student evaluations at the end of term.
Ambady’s studies show that there may be no more to how we make first impressions than meets the eye. We will often infer, from a scant few moments of observation, who is confident, warm and enthusiastic, in control, dominant, trustworthy, likeable, authoritarian or expert. These person-perception processes are thought to be automatic, occurring within fifty milliseconds of being exposed to a new individual;10 and, as we will show, they frequently develop very early in life.
Of course there’s more to human interaction than first impressions and non-verbal behaviour. True feelings of respect and connectedness do not form immediately, after a single glance. We also build up an understanding of people over time. We develop feelings for them – sometimes positive, sometimes negative, occasionally both – that will also influence how much we are prepared to listen to them. As a general rule, if we respect and feel connected to someone, then we will be more inclined to listen to and follow them (although there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, which will be explored later). We can also learn to manage the signals we send out. A communications coach or media trainer may show us how to alter our speech, expression and manner so that we come across more positively. We may even try to train ourselves by honing our self-presentation skills, although this is certainly harder. What media coaches and self-development activities lack, however, is an understanding of the astonishingly broad and fascinating science that informs the characteristics of successful messengers, and how we are frequently influenced by the most trivial and seemingly inconsequential of cues.
Messengers, hard and soft
In 1982 the respected scholars Edward Jones and Thane Pittman developed a conceptual framework describing five strategies that a messenger might adopt as a means to manage an audience’s impression of them.11 They might choose to appear competent, morally respectable, intimidating, likeable or pitiful. The two researchers also noted that a single approach will not work in all circumstances. A teacher walking into a new class may choose to adopt an intimidating style – say, by sternly warning a student who has been misbehaving – in an attempt to signal that they are not to be messed with. Adopting that same messenger style in a different situation – let’s say, meeting a partner’s parents for the first time – would likely be self-defeating. Even within a single interaction, it might be advisable to shift from appearing likeable to appearing intimidating, or from competent to pitiful, should the circumstances demand it.
The Jones and Pittman messenger framework is fine as far as it goes, but it is also somewhat incomplete and, of course, has been overtaken by a substantial body of research that has emerged during the last forty years. In this book we offer up a more contemporary and compelling framework, built upon two broad categories of messenger: hard and soft. Hard messengers are more likely to have their messages accepted, because audiences perceive them to possess superior status. Soft messengers, in contrast, win acceptance of their messages because they are perceived to possess a connectedness with an audience. In the chapters that follow we consider each trait of these two broad messenger types in turn.
In Part One we explore the domain of the hard messenger. The hard messenger possesses, or might claim to possess, elevated status. Messengers with higher perceived status carry greater sway in society, regardless of whether their position has been achieved explicitly through an agreement or has emerged informally, because they are believed to possess power and qualities that may be valuable to those around them. Think of the leader of a political party or the captain of a sports team. Typically, we associate status with hierarchy in the workplace, which makes sense because those at the top of a clearly defined organisational structure are the ones who make the important decisions, control company resources and usually get paid the most. Indeed, the very fact that they do have status may mean that they receive more respect, and are judged as providing more value to their organisation, than perhaps they should. But status hierarchies are not confined solely to the domains of the workplace. They can be found in our schools, family groups, networks of friends and associates, and in our local communities and broader societies, too. We explore four important traits, dedicating a chapter to each, which contribute either individually or in combination to status-driven messenger success: socio-economic position, competence, dominance and attractiveness.
Part Two is devoted to an investigation of societies’ soft messengers. Effective messengers are not just rich or famous. Nor are they necessarily expert, dominant or in possession of overpowering levels of attractiveness. The standout feature of soft messengers is their connectedness with an audience. Humans are social animals and have a strong desire to form connections, to bond and cooperate with others. People don’t always look to experts or CEOs for information. Sometimes they prefer to hear from their friends, those they trust and the people who are ‘like them’. In Chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8 we investigate four fundamental factors that contribute – again either individually or in combination – to the softer-driven characteristics of successful messengers: warmth, vulnerability, trustworthiness and charisma.
In the Conclusion to the book we examine the interplay between the various hard- and soft-messenger effects, and attempt to distinguish between those situations where a hard, status-driven messenger is likely to be preferred, and those where a softer, connectedness-driven messenger will emerge victorious. We then turn our attention to the professional, political and societal impact of these messenger effects. If we accept that these messenger effects are so fundamental as to influence the very fabric of society and our place within it, the values we hold, the political parties we follow, who we choose to believe and who we don’t, which groups we join and which ones we reject, then what can we do to manage their broader impact on our society? We offer up two principal ideas that could be helpful for a variety of groups, including policy-makers, professionals who design and construct impactful communications, educators and parents. Our ideas are not designed to be deliberately contentious, but rather to start a conversation about the important factors that influence who we listen to and who we do not. For one single reason.
Recognising the traits of society’s messengers is crucial because they fundamentally influence not just who we listen to and what we believe, but also who we become.
- "In the age of fake news, understanding who we trust and why is essential to explaining everything from leadership to power to our daily relationships. With Messengers, Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks have given us the definitive book on the subject. Illuminating and entertaining, it helps us understand who we follow and why we follow them, in politics, business, and everyday life."—Sinan Aral, David Austin Professor of Management at MIT and author of the forthcoming The Hype Machine
- "Whenever we listen to a presentation, scroll through social media, or glance at the television, the question-Whom should we believe? -confronts us. Martin and Marks marshal an array of evidence to deliver a clear, compelling, and sometimes disturbing answer. Some books help us become better citizens. Others help us perform better at our jobs. This remarkable book somehow manages to do both. Messengers is an essential read for everyone."—Daniel H. Pink, author of When, Drive, and A Whole New Mind
- "A powerful, profoundly illuminating exploration of one of the most important subjects of our time. Martin and Marks have a terrific talent for combining evidence and research with lively and vivid writing. Trust these messengers!"—Cass R. Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University, and author of Conformity
- "Engaging, informative, and entertaining. It will change the way you think about who you follow and take advice from."—Tali Sharot, University College London, author of The Optimism Bias and The Influential Mind
- "Messengers is a tour de force on this crucial topic. Thoroughly researched and timely, I can't think of any book that makes such a compelling case for the role and characteristics of the modern day messenger."—Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
- "Who do we believe, and why do we believe them? Messengers explains why we listen to the powerful-and sometimes the not so powerful-and what distinguishes the messengers we listen to from the ones we don't. A book that's as entertaining as it is timely and important."—Adam Alter, New York University, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked
"Robust....Messengers is useful in that it's designed to help consumers and citizens understand when they're being manipulated and take steps to resist."
—Harvard Business Review
- "Almost everyone has had the experience of not being taken seriously -- even when their message was serious, founded on fact and relevant to the audience. You can get frustrated, or you can read Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don't, and Why."—Small Business Trends
- On Sale
- Oct 15, 2019
- Hachette Audio